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Child soldiers, social work and communities in transition

Children forced to be soldiers during Sierra Leone’s civil war that ended a decade ago have growing into a generation of traumatised adults in need of support.

Olu Hyde, a lecturer in social science at Worcester University, said many had been ostracised from their community and were fleeing to other countries where authorities also needed to be aware of their issue.

Mr Hyde said: “It was a bloody war. One of the notorious aspects of it was that civilians deliberately had limbs amputated. A lot of these atrocities were carried out by child soldiers commanded by adult soldiers.

“They were boys but also girls. They were used for combating, labour and sexual exploitation.”

As adults, they have been left on the scrap heap in one of the poorest countries in the world, said Mr Hyde, because they had missed out on education.

“That means they can’t get employment. If you are not educated in anyway apart from fighting there is not much work for you. Most of them are on the streets as hawkers and doing menial labour jobs earning roughly one dollar a day.”

Mr Hyde added: “A lot of them suffered physical injuries from being at war. A lot of the girls suffered multiple rapes and injuries because of that. Being a poor country, they are not able to access health services.”

Some victims also suffer flashbacks, said Mr Hyde, yet the West African state which has a population of six million only has one qualified psychiatrist and one small mental health hospital.

“They desperately need counselling. What they do is get themselves together and support each other with peer support systems which is quite difficult because they have to hide their identity.

“The society and community as a whole rejects them because they were once child soldiers. Even their families reject them. There are girls who got pregnant and need assistance now. There is a need for family reunification. A lot of them don’t know if their family is alive or dead because they are afraid to go back to their villages because of what they did.

“But they only did those things because they were forced to through threats of violence.”

But amid the bleakness, there is hope. Social work training started up in the country in 2011 and the academic curriculum focuses strongly on community growth and development.

Mr Hyde said: “The curriculum will have to expand sensitively to equip social workers with the skills and competencies to manage the complexities bought forth by children implicated in conflict.

“That’s true not just in Sierra Leone, because these people migrate and social work here in the UK and elsewhere will have to pick up the pieces.”

Mr Hyde was speaking at a seminar to highlight the ways social workers are responding to changing communities at the Compass Jobs Fair Sharing Excellence in Social Work and Social Care Practice event.

Joy Gauci, Senior Lecturer in International Social Work at the University of Worcester, told delegates social work was a “watchful” profession, that sat alongside communities, particularly those experiencing conflict or transition.

She described how social workers from the UK, where the profession is more established, were helping other countries where it was still emerging.

Ms Gauci highlighted work undertaken by members of the British Association of Social Workers in countries including Russia and Palestine.

"Social work in the UK is a profession that is secure enough to support social work in emerging countries that are in crisis,” she said.

“Last year we went to Dzerzhinsk in Russia which is the tenth most polluted city in the world to work with a project working with families with a high level of personal stress.”

She also highlighted work being done with Romania’s gypsy communities to tackle social and economic exclusion.