An article on former child soldiers in Sierra Leone in the Comparative Education Review (vol 52, no 4) attempts to assess the importance of education to the reintegration of former child soldiers. Child soldiers, as defined by UNICEF, include all boys and girls under age 18 who become part of [national or "irregular"] armed forces whether they are involved as combatants or they serve as cooks, porters, human shields, sexual slaves, messengers, spies or other capacities.
The article provides a poignant, if partial, view of the aspirations and challenges that former child soldiers face. But in focusing on child soldiers' experiences in schools that are already failing most kids in Sierra Leone, the article fails to move the discussion beyond the obvious or the intuitive.
(Last week I noted that Narun, a former child soldier from Cambodia, had grown up to become a man of many skills, with a relatively secure place in life. At the time that I knew him, in 1998, however, he was unwilling to entertain the idea of a future--he was still in a kind of thrall, despite his success, to his experience of conflict. Narun's did not finish secondary school, his job skills were self-taught in order to respond to what he perceived as immediate opportunity. The connection, as I see it, is that Narun's story is at least non-obvious, it and others like it might provide more nuanced information about success factors in the lives of former child soldiers.)
There about 250,000 child soldiers in 50 countries worldwide (my country _might_ be considered one of these, as 17-year-olds are still allowed to enlist in the US armed forces). Child soldiers face obstacles that range from ostracism to drug use to physical disabilities and PTSD--along with fact that many of them were abducted/conscripted before they mastered literacy, numeracy and other skills.
The lead author of the article, Theresa Betancourt, has written extensively about children in conflict-ridden and post-conflict societies. In this article, she and her co-authors make a number of worthwhile points:
- Many child soldiers are more interested in starting families and earning incomes than in education
- Child soldiers who are re-enrolled can be very self-conscious about being older than other students
- "Fast-track" and other separate programs for conflict-affected children can be effective
- Peer networks and other social networks help former child soldiers function effectively in society
- Education--basic, vocational and even secondary education--has a role to play
Betancourt et al also provide relevant educational information...
But the closer the authors get to the reality of Sierra Leonean school system, the more apparent it becomes that the problems that child soldiers face are the same as those faced by most of the kids in the country and in many poor countries:
- Former child soldiers can't afford to pay school fees and related costs
- Schools don't shelter them from wind, rain, or other elements
- Schools don't have benches or books for them to use
- Their teachers, who are paid only infrequently, often don't show up to teach
These are problems that are familiar to anyone who has visited schools in least-developed or post-conflict countries; they affect the quality of education of all students. As a result, in Sierra Leone, as the authors acknowledge, primary completion hovers at around 65 percent, junior secondary enrolment is only 17 percent of primary enrolment, and senior secondary enrolment is only 8 percent of junior secondary enrolment.
This is a school system that is not working. For anyone.
Moreoever, with per-capita GDP at US $700, the economy of Sierra Leone isn't working either. (No surprise there.)
The assurances that young respondents give in interviews, that they view education as vital to their success in life, simply don't match up to the reality of the situation. The schools are lousy, learning--even if the curriculum is designed to be relevant to kids' real lives--is barely measurable and probably not valuable. And at least for the few students who complete junior-secondary school, the probability that their educational achievement will translate into jobs is extremely low.
The article by Betancourt et al also begs several questions regarding the differences between child soldiers and adult soldiers: levels of drug use, length time as soldiers, rates and severity of PTSD, income levels, incarceration rates and so on. And these data need to be placed in the context of Sierra Leonean society as a whole.
Please don't get me wrong. Child soldiering is a curse we place on ourselves, and former child soldiers and the societies they are re-entering both deserve the utmost in efforts to smooth reintegration and support these victims as they mature. But these are tasks for specialists, for NGOs, for an imagined Sierra Leonean Veteran's Administration, for a functioning MOE. Fixing broken schools requires another, equally fundamental, and equally contextualized, effort.
Development education -- and economic development in general -- has to be approached holistically. Funding special programs for former child soldiers, in schools where teachers aren't getting paid or aren't showing up, when there are no books, when there is no learning, and where no jobs are awarded to degree holders, will distort school environments unless and until more comprehensive reform efforts are funded.