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Liberated child soldiers swap bullets for books

“When I was young, I thought of getting revenge. That’s why I joined the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, even though I wasn’t the right age,” says former child soldier, Nash Kumilang, 30.

Nash was just one of many Bangsamoro (also known as Moro) children who found themselves trained in combat and caught up in the conflict between the Philippine government and the Bangsamoro armed groups. The conflict gripped Mindanao Island, in the South of the Philippines, for over 40 years, as the Bangsamoros fought for independence. 

It hindered economic progress in the region and resulted in widespread violence and social unrest. Thousands of lives were lost and more than three million people were forced to flee their homes.

Peace is gradually returning as thousands of Bangsamoro children have now been educated on their rights following years of recruitment into armed activities, thanks to a campaign from child rights organisation Plan International.

Tackling the problem from the root, Plan International, in partnership with UNICEF, has been working directly with army commanders to put an end to the use of child soldiers.

Former child soldier, Nash Kumilang

“Recruiting children into armed activities is a gross violation of human rights," says Jocelyn Kanda, project coordinator from Plan International.

Children should be going to school and learning, not wearing a uniform and heading into a combat.

By working with traditional leaders, parents and children themselves, communities have been educated on the dangers of recruiting and using children in armed activities. 

Alongside, concerted efforts have been made to ensure children stay in school and finish their education.

Independence movement

Bangsamoros are the indigenous Muslim population, largely concentrated in the Mindanao Island. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which claims to represent the local population, claims to represent an independence movement. The Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) is the armed wing of the MILF, which has trained and used child soldiers in the past.

The group is now in a peace agreement with the government pending the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which aims to establish a political autonomy for the population.

Plan International’s project has been educating communities on child rights, while talks have been taking place between the United Nations and the MILF since 2009 to help remove or ‘de-list’ it from the UN Secretary General list of armed forces and groups that use child soldiers.

"Once there are no longer any minors in the rank and file of the BIAF, it will be delisted,” says Wilma Madato, 50.

Wilma is a training officer for MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade, which keeps female fighters as a reserve in the event of an armed confrontation, and has experienced what it’s like to be a child soldier.

“In the past, there were child soldiers. I even trained in combat when I was young. If [they] saw you are a ‘bangsamoro’, they threatened to cut your ears and throat. I told myself that if I do not pursue my training, I might be next.”

Not wanting others to experience what she went through, Wilma is now active in the campaign to prevent those under 18 from participating in armed activities, with the support of Plan International.

As part of her role, Wilma raises awareness in her community to prevent the use of children, whether as fighters or in other support roles, in armed activities. She is also committed to supporting the action plan between the UN and the MILF to address concerns of child rights violations in armed conflict.

Action plan

"We have a programme that says children below the age of 18 should not be part of the rank and file of the military," says Wilma, who has been working with Plan International and UNICEF throughout all awareness-raising activities with MILF commanders.

So far, the campaign has reached almost 1,500 children, over 1,400 parents, 7,800 base commanders and their key subordinates, as well as 100 village officials.

On a local level, Plan International has lobbied Sarangani province, in Mindanao, to include child protection measures to fight against the recruitment into armed activities – in its children’s code.

“Plan International has worked closely with the local government,” says Jocelyn. “As a result, it has committed to continue educating communities about the prevention of using children in armed conflict. It is essential this work continues.”

Children have also made their voices heard to ensure they don’t have to return to past ways. 

Close to 40 children and youth from all over Mindanao have been trained in video production skills, while a radio advertisement, public service announcements and a documentary have been produced and used to educate communities about the dangers of using child soldiers.

It’s important for parents to encourage their children not to join armed groups because it can have long-term, devastating consequences for them,” says Nash. “This campaign contributes a great deal to educating our community."