On the inside walls of one of the centers for former child soldiers in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, are images that start with the horrors of war and gradually become those of anticipated hopes and dreams. At the beginning, there are drawings of helicopters attacking and being fired upon by troops of children and adults, there are houses on fire and guns ranging -- from AK-47's to sub-machine guns with bullets spilling out of them.
"They always draw the war first, before anything else," the director of the center told me.
Toward the middle and the end of the wall, the images are of schools, a child holding a book and wearing a school uniform, walking to class and drawings of the Barcelona football club insignia.
In one room sat two boys playing a game of cards. On the wall a photo of Britney Spears was pasted. I asked them in French if they knew who that was. "Of course!" they said with a grin and resumed their game.
At the end of the visit, I sat down to have a conversation with some of the boys. They told me to relay the message that "war is slavery for a child," and that they would like all the other children who are fighting in the government army and rebel groups to be demobilized. These boys, some as young as 11, have experienced war first hand and their faces, boyish and hardened with pain, tell the stories of thousands of children around the world who are used by armed groups as soldiers, cooks, sex slaves or scouts.
I was one of those children forced into fighting at the age of 13, in my country Sierra Leone, a war that claimed the lives of my mother, father and two brothers. I know too well the emotional, psychological and physical burden that comes with being exposed to violence as a child or at any age for that matter.
I simply do not want what consumed my childhood to happen to others. Therefore, protecting children from armed conflict -- which is keeping the most vulnerable out of school, in poverty and at risk of abuse -- continues to be a purpose I approach with passion. Thus I was in Chad's capital N'Djamena last week attending a major regional gathering organized by UNICEF and the Chadian government.
The conference brought together regional Heads of States, Ministers and high-ranking officials from Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan on one hand, and NGO's, community leaders and former child soldiers on the other, to discuss how to end the recruitment and use of children by national armies and rebel groups. It was an important step in strengthening collaboration among decision makers, development partners, civil society and communities to help ensure that children are protected from fighting the wars of adults, and that those who already have are provided with the necessary support to make a transition back to civilian life.
The meeting comes just weeks after a concerted push from the United Nations for universal ratification of two optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography. The Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict has been ratified by 132 states -- while 25 states have signed but not ratified it, and 36 have never signed nor ratified it. And they should, otherwise their inaction is an indirect endorsement for those recruiting children in war and all the abuses that come with it.
Government and rebel groups must be committed to ending the recruitment and abuse of children. All of us have a role and responsibility to play in ensuring that all actors adhere to this protocol and that those who violate the rights of children are held accountable.
At the conference in Chad, participants discussed ways to better help reach some of these goals. They focused on factors leading to the involvement of children in armed forces and groups; identified good practices to help prevent and reduce vulnerability of children to recruitment into armed groups; looked at ways to reintegrate boys and girls who had served with armed forces; and how to better monitor violations in recruitment and abuse of children. At the closing, participants signed a binding document called the N'Djamena Declaration, which outlines specific commitments to help stop the recruitment and use of children by Armed Forces and Armed Groups. The document is an important milestone for this conflict impacted region as it helps lay the foundation for ending the recruitment and use of children in war. To help ensure that promises are kept, a monitoring committee has been established under the declaration to sound the alarm if states are not living up to the agreement.
But at the end of the day, unless governments and non-governmental actors abide by the actions they agree to, or are held accountable to legally binding international obligations, the world will not change for the many children who remain on the frontlines. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the rights of children are upheld -- and to speak out when they are violated. Otherwise, we will continue to have thousands of children lose their childhood to the brutality of war.