Exploring the Intersection of Child Soldiering and Disability

Dustin Johnson

February 17, 2017

By: Dustin Johnson

Despite the considerable research into the use of child soldiers over the past two decades, there are still many areas that remain under-explored in the literature. One of these is the intersection of disability and the experience of child soldiering. Last year, Dallaire Initiative research officer Dustin Johnson and executive director Dr. Shelly Whitman wrote an article for a special issue of the journal Third World Thematics on child soldiers and disability, which was recently published.

In this article we explore the current state of knowledge on child soldiers and disability, opportunities that the post-conflict environment can provide for improved inclusion, and what avenues exist for us to be more inclusive in our own work. It is important when considering disability to view it from the social perspective: inevitably, some people have physical, mental, or sensory impairments which interfere with their everyday functioning. Disability results when stigma, ignorance, and lack of inclusivity marginalizes impaired people and prevents them from fully participating in society. Disability can be addressed by changing the attitudes, policies, and environments which disable.

There has been little research previously specifically on child soldiers and disability; most relevant studies have either focused on specific mental or physical injuries which may lead to disability, or on disability among children or ex-combatants in general. There is a high likelihood that at least some child soldiers will emerge from conflict with a disability, leaving them even more marginalized. Therefore, it is critical that services provided to demobilizing child soldiers be inclusive, and support the specific needs to disabled children. Civilian children also face many of the same traumas which can lead to impairment, and should not be neglected.

There are often substantial changes to national laws and institutions during the post-conflict reconstruction period, providing a valuable window to shift norms and promote inclusivity. Reconstruction of physical infrastructure also provides an opportunity to build it into international accessibility standards. When it comes to child soldiers, the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) process is the most important area for inclusivity. Current international standards for DDR make some advances in this area, but a more explicit consideration of disability is needed to ensure that accessibility is not ignored as it too often is. Marginalization due to disability could potentially leave children vulnerable to re-recruitment in the future, so inclusive DDR is important for conflict prevention as well as being just.

The researching and writing of this paper was our first intentional examination of the intersection of disability and our work. A number of opportunities exist for us to be more inclusive in our work, including partnering with disability focused organizations in countries we work in, and using our high-level advocacy contacts to advance inclusivity in relation to child soldiers.