Beyond ‘the child soldier’: from a recognition of complexity to an ethics of engagement
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The ‘problem’ of ‘the child soldier’ is a touchstone of our contemporary time. It names an impassioned concern with the exploitation and victimization of children in situations of armed conflict by more powerful state and non-state actors – a concern which is understood to reflect a global humanitarian sentiment that has emerged in response to the grave violence and injustice that occurs in the world. Influential international actors and institutions frame child soldiering as ‘one of the most deplorable developments in recent years’ and a ‘crime against humanity’, cautioning that ‘[e]mpathy alone with the suffering of boys and girls in times of conflict is not enough. We must act.’ The problem of child soldiering thus justifies a variety of humanitarian campaigns, international justice initiatives and political interventions designed to end the practice. In the name of preventing and redressing the scourge of child soldiering, individuals, communities and organizations come together to denounce this practice and respond to its effects. And at the heart of many of these collaborations and campaigns lies an image of the vulnerable (often African) child compelling protection and care. This is an image that can appear as transparent as it is problematic; an unquestionable depiction of injustice that seems to demand a certain reaction. This is the work of problematization. Problematization refers to the socially, legally, politically, culturally and historically located processes whereby a particular issue or concern emerges on the social and legal scene. It is the giving of form to something which previously did not exist as such, in particular ways. Problematization refers to ‘the totality of discursive or non-discursive practices that introduces something into the play of true and false and constitutes it as an object for thought (whether in the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis)’. Here then, problematization refers to the way in which the complex array of contexts and experiences that have been described so carefully in the preceding pages come to be understood as parts of a whole, as different perspectives on ‘the problem of the child soldier’. And it is from this understanding and articulation of a shared problem that potential solutions can then be crafted – solutions which are always delimited to the terms and truths upon which the initial problematization is based. An attention to problematization, therefore, separates an acknowledgement of the reality of children’s participation in conflict from the current, somewhat cohesive and consistent, way of understanding (and indeed pathologizing) this participation, its nature, causes and potential solutions.

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