The causes and trajectories of existing conflicts in Sri Lanka and Nepal demonstrate the failure of states to seriously address the underlying causes of social unrest. The idea that the state is prejudiced against a particular ethnic group, as in Sri Lanka, or against a particular class, as in Nepal, is used by non-state actors to justify the continuation of conflict in which children are inevitably targeted. The primary fault line in Bangladesh relates to the notion of Bangladeshi identity and the role of Islam, but although outbreaks of religious terrorism have taken place in Bangladesh, there has been no outbreak of full-scale conflict.
In Bangladesh, in the absence of any systematic research into either the use of children by mastans or indoctrination by madrassas, assessment of the use of children by armed groups remains largely impressionistic and anecdotal. However, it is possible to put together some sort of composite picture on the use of children in conflicts in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The violation of children's rights during conflict has to be viewed in the context of the state's failure to promote child rights in the community.
The rights of children in the three states examined are disregarded through practices such as bonded labour and sexual trafficking. In each case the line between 'childhood' and 'adulthood' is usually vague, and responsibilities are acquired as a result of factors beyond chronological age. The failure of the state to provide adequate and neutral education is another issue in understanding conflict and child recruitment.
The correlation between child recruitment and child labour in Nepal needs further investigation. For Bangladesh, this report aims to flag up future areas of study to examine linkages between the social and educational marginalization of street and slum children and their vulnerability to use by armed, criminal syndicates.
Children are inevitably among the first to be affected by conflict. Recruitment by armed groups is only one of the ways in which the rights of children are violated during a conflict situation. Children have been killed and maimed during cross-fire and have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and ill-treated by police and other state authorities throughout the conflicts in Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The destruction wrought by these conflicts has affected access to food and deprived children of key services such as education and health care. The systematic violation of the fundamental rights of children during conflict creates situations in which children are vulnerable to both forced and voluntary recruitment by non-state armed groups. The breakdown of protection mechanisms makes access to children easier and, in some cases, joining an armed group becomes part of children's survival strategy.
The root causes of conflict in Sri Lanka and Nepal lie in failures by governments to provide broad-based development and social justice. Angry at political marginalization and government unaccountability, many older children in Sri Lanka and Nepal joined the rebel movements voluntarily at first. But as conflict deepened and security conditions deteriorated, younger children became vulnerable to recruitment as a result of hunger, displacement and the desire to protect their communities and for revenge.
In Bangladesh a similar set of factors, namely poverty, isolation, lack of choice and a visible absence of real democracy and equal opportunities, could push children into the hands of radical elements and criminal mafias. Lessons learnt from Sri Lanka and Nepal have direct resonance in Bangladesh. The contested role of education in Nepal and Sri Lanka provides another lesson for Bangladesh. This relates not only to access to standardized education in remote and backward areas but also to the curriculum, medium of instruction, and political involvement in budgetary and operational matters.
In Nepal, the school curriculum has been the focus for tensions, and therefore carries the potential to be as much 'part of the problem' as 'part of the solution' in a number of ways. Timely attention to curriculum standardization in Quomi madrassas could open up opportunities for many poorer students and create disincentives for radicalization and recruitment by nonstate armed groups.
Engagement on the issue of child recruitment in Sri Lanka and Nepal requires a broad-based approach. In both contexts social and economic inequalities are obvious and democracy has failed to deliver on the basic needs of citizens, creating conditions where protection mechanisms for children break down and allow their recruitment by armed groups. Human rights organisations therefore need to understand the social, economic and political factors and conflict characteristics that lead to child participation, and protection mechanisms should collectively address and prevent violence, abuse and neglect, exploitation and discrimination and forced recruitment into armed groups. Advocacy responses thus need to be both inclusive and strategic, identifying conflict trends on the back of effective monitoring and research.