Thursday, December 13, 2007

Experts: Poverty, culture of violence contribute to growing child militancy in Pakistan

from the International Herald Tribune

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Poverty, a culture of weapons and reliance on schools that teach little but religion have fostered a growing wave of child militants, particularly in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, experts said Thursday.

"Islamic militancy, in and of itself, is the major problem," said Attiya Inayatullah, a board member of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child. "Any use or exploitation of a child is unacceptable. We need to have a strong movement that says 'no.'"

Pro-Taliban militants have asserted growing control over Pakistan's impoverished northwest in recent years, challenging the authority of the state. As well as trying to impose an extreme brand of Islam, they have also recruited youths as fighters, reportedly offering payments to their parents.

The issue recently came under scrutiny after a militant video emerged of a 16-year-old youth beheading a soldier in lawless South Waziristan and images of preteens brandishing weapons. But it is not confined to religious extremist groups and has been fermenting for decades in remote areas where tribes wage war over grudges new and old.

"Children are brought up in the shadow of guns," Salam Dharejo, who recently undertook a study of child militancy in the southern province of Sindh, told a one-day conference on the topic.

Showing photos of a 10-year-old boy toting an assault rifle, he said parts of Sindh are becoming no-go areas for outsiders, with 20 tribes and clans in 10 districts regularly fighting it out. Dharejo recalled interviewing a 22-year-old man who said he has been carrying a gun since conflict broke out with a rival tribe when he was 5, and knows no other way of life.

"How can I be educated?" Dharejo quoted the man as saying.

The proliferation of weapons among children also has sparked growth in petty crime among youths, much of it targeting the educated, he added.

Qazi Azmat, chairman of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, said an estimated 200,000 children under age 18 are serving in conflicts around the world. UNICEF statistics say 2 million children have been killed, 6 million maimed and more than a million orphaned by conflicts over the past decade.

Some children are kidnapped or pressured into becoming fighters, some are lured by the promises of pay or drugs, while others are indoctrinated at an early age into believing they are becoming holy warriors for their religion. Even more are forced into support roles or use as human shields.

Two 15-year-olds who have been jailed in the northwestern Pakistan town of Bannu claimed they were trained to be suicide bombers, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. Pro-Taliban militants are active in the region.

Part of the problem is the drastic shortage of quality education, several experts said. The gap is being filled by religious schools known as madrassas that often focus only on Islamic teachings with no modern subjects and TV-watching banned as a sin. Funded by charities or rich donors, some madrassas have been acccused of promoting extremism. Many students live there because their parents can't afford to raise them.

A video available in some markets shows young boys chanting Islamic slogans at a madrassa as they tote rifles that are nearly bigger than they are and engage in martials arts training.

The result is that the children are raised with constant indoctrination and no role models other than militants and gangsters, said Fazla Gulrez, another member of the child protection society.

With such education, Gulrez wondered whether such children have any chance of becoming mathematicians, teachers or economists — or if their future lies only as militants. Their children also appear destined to follow the same path.

Accused of apathy on the issue, virtually all of Pakistan's political parties are making education a prime plank of their campaign platforms for next month's parliamentary elections.

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