NEW ROCHELLE, NY & COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (April 16, 2012) - Salesians are fighting the recruitment of child soldiers—even girls—in Sri Lanka, and working to heal the wounds of those forced to take part in the country’s civil war.
“Childhood should be a time of innocence and schooling,” says Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “But that’s not the reality for youth in Sri Lanka being recruited to fight the country’s civil war. For these youth, it’s weapons and war rather than school books and play.”
While the civil war’s official end came in May 2009, the recruitment of child soldiers continues to rise according to Douglas Devanada, Minister for Tamil Social Services. He quotes reliable sources that say that the LTTE (the rebel group of the Tamil Tigers in the north of Sri Lanka) aims to recruit about 60,000 children in the north of the country.
The recruitment and use of child soldiers in the country’s civil war has gone on for years in Sri Lanka. Fewer children are attending school due both to fighting the war and the fear of falling into the hands of the rebel army on the way to school. Some children have limited defenses to resist recruitment efforts. Others faced with poverty, lack of education and few job prospects see little alternative to joining.
Child soldiers are used for various purposes in the civil war that has raged through the country for a little more than 20 years. While some are fighters, others act as scouts and guides and man checkpoints. Others run errands or cook and clean for the armed forces. Some of the most unfortunate are used as suicide bombers. Gender and age offer no protection against recruitment efforts. Some children have been as young as eight years old. And girls can face an even tougher time than their male peers.
Girls are used as soldiers in the same way as boys, but they also face gender-based violence. Reports of sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced prostitution are all too common. In addition to the typical traumas of war, girls are subjected to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and social stigma making it difficult, if not impossible, to reintegrate back into their communities.
In the wake of this ongoing trauma, the Salesians continue their work with child soldiers in Sri Lanka. A rehabilitation center in Colombo, which was first opened to assist “at risk” street children and young victims of sexual abuse has in recent years worked with child soldiers providing therapy and job skills training. Subsequently, other Salesian Missions rehabilitation centers have opened throughout the country working to help more and more child soldiers reintegrate back into their communities and move forward with their lives.
In addition, the Salesians operate Mary Help of Christians House in Negombo, Sri Lanka, which is home to 173 girl soldiers. This rehabilitation center is run by Salesian Sisters who realized that these girls had no place to turn. In addition to offering the basics of food, clothing and shelter, the sisters focus on the physical and psychological health of the girls. Their dedication and support has enabled the girls to come a long way in the past few years. Nearly half of them are attending classes between the 6th and 8th grade levels, while several of the older girls are taking professional courses.
Physical wounds heal over time but the emotional and psychological wounds that both male and female child soldiers face can take a lifetime to heal. The emotional support, education and job placement provided by the Salesians plays a large role in helping youth come to terms with their circumstances and preparing them for a brighter future.