This week, Nepal’s Maoist rebels announced plans to raise a militia of 50,000 children by April, amid reports of mass abduction, even sexual abuse of kids, who they allegedly use as cannon fodder.
On February 22, the leader of the Maoists student wing, Kamal Shahi, said the decision to raise child militia was taken by the rebel leadership on January 10-11.
This marks a major departure from their previous commitments to avoid recruiting children below the age of 18.
The radical decision has raised the hackles of rights activists and international organizations which have criticized the ideological indoctrination and military training of children in the conflict-torn kingdom.
While the activists described the numbers dished out by Shahi as over-inflated, they said the issue of recruitment of child soldiers which has been consistently denied by the Maoist leadership is assuming serious proportions.
In the past couple of weeks, the Maoists have resorted to mass abductions, particularly of young students of grades six-ten (average age: 12-16 years) from schools in western Nepal, a hotbed of insurgency.
The Maoists have abducted hundreds of students and dozens of teachers from Holeri in the southern Rolpa district, and taken them to an unknown location. Witnesses said a group of Maoists arrived there and forcibly herded away students and teachers.
Last week, the Maoists announced they would provide military training to students and teachers of Bal Udaya Secondary School in Rolpa. In addition, the rebels have forcibly enrolled 13 girls into their army in Achham district.
All these girls were aged below 21.
According to a recent statement by the leading child rights nongovernmental organization, Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Sector (CWIN), two dozen children have died in the past six months of conflict in the country.
"In this period, around 950 children were abducted," says CWIN. Though most abducted students are allowed to return after a couple of weeks, the ideological and military training they are given, traumatizes many of them.
Says Unicef’s resident representative in Nepal, Suomi Sakai, "This is a very sensitive matter. Children must not be used in any form of war." She adds that Unicef will try to ascertain the facts about this issue.
While rights organizations claim over 30 percent of the Maoist militia and army comprises children below 18 years of age, most tragically, many children end up as human shields.
"There is credible evidence that children were used as soldiers, messengers, cooks, porters and suppliers by rebel groups," points out the executive director of rights organization, International Institute for Human Rights, Environment and Development, Gopal Krishna Shiwakoti.
"They are also being used as human shields. Since the Maoists have predominantly been using light weapons and small arms, young children with very little training can handle them," says Shiwakoti.
"There are incidents of using children in different aspects of conflict. And the trend is getting dangerous," warns the former chief of the Nepal chapter of the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Krishna Pahadi.
The glare of the United Nations is falling on the outrage. In November 2003, UN secretary general Kofi Annan presented a report for the General Assembly and Security Council, which included a list of 15 nations, including Nepal, where armed rebel forces abused children.
In its recent briefing for the Fourth UN Security Council Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict, the International Coalition Against Child Soldiers stated, "There were reports of recruitment and use of children aged between 15 and 18, although the Maoist leadership denied this. Many children were reportedly abducted by the Maoists, including 518 children in January 2003."
The children most of whom were released after receiving political indoctrination said they had been trained in "guerrilla warfare." Child recruits were reportedly used in some cases as fighters and human shields, as well as messengers and porters.
The briefing claimed that reports of sexual abuse of underage girls were also received.
The director of Amnesty International (Nepal), Raju Sarkar, is alarmed over the trend of using child soldiers in Nepal. "Though the exact number or percentage of child soldiers is not known, it is a fact that they are being used," he says.
In its report titled ‘Nepal: A Deepening Crisis’ released a year ago, Amnesty International stated, "In areas under their control, the Maoists exercise a recruitment policy of ‘one family, one member.’ Children, including girls, are deployed in combat situations, often to help provide ammunition or assist with evacuating or caring for the wounded."
It said a 16-year-old boy from Dang district (of western Nepal) reported how he was forced to assist with carrying wounded Maoist combatants to India for treatment in May 2002. He revealed how he and six others of the same age managed to run away.
Amnesty also obtained evidence of the training of children in the use of arms. A 14-year-old girl explained how arms training took place by torchlight during the night, with children attending classes during the day.
The Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), a leading rights organization, has also conducted some studies regarding the use of child soldiers. "Although the Maoist leadership denies it, there have been events and incidents, which suggest otherwise," says Yogesh Kharel of INSEC.
The INSEC report cites an incident that occurred in November 2002 when 12-year-old Buddhabir Thing was arrested by security forces. He was involved in attacking police posts and looting banks, and was booked under the anti-terrorism law.
Krishna Gautam, also of INSEC, recalls seeing children below 12 years of age working as messengers and guards in Rolpa district. "These boys even had socket bombs (crude bombs) hung around their neck and they acted as messengers. They were also out of school," he says.
While the Nepalese government has set up separate centers to receive surrendering rebels, they have not made any efforts to take care of the special needs of children caught in the conflict.
A shade belatedly, officials at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare say they are planning to take initiatives to help such children.