In the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has pledged to reinforce its commitment to end the recruitment of children. Can President Rodrigo Duterte also help? Ana P. Santos reports from Mindanao.
The United Nations and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have pledged to safeguard the rights of children and have implemented an action plan to ensure that children affected by armed conflicts are better protected.
"We are committed to implementing this program, which is for the good of our children," said Sammy Al-Mansor, Chief of Staff of MILF - Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF).
Since the full implementation of the action plan in 2014, more than 20,000 members of the MILF and its military wing, the BIAF, have been briefed on improving protective measures for children, prohibiting the recruitment of children and strengthening the role of women. The framework of the agreement is communicated through the #childrennotsoldiers campaign led by the United Nations's Children's Fund (UNICEF).
In 2011, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the United Nation's Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, included the MILF among armed groups enlisting child combatants younger than 18 years.
While the MILF acknowledges there are children in their approximately 21 base camps scattered across Mindanao, the insurgent group insisted they only perform auxiliary chores like cooking in the community-like camps.
Eid Kabalu, then MILF spokesperson, responded to the 2011 report and insisted that differences in cultural definitions might have led to the findings. According to Kabalu, under local Islamic laws, boys older than 13 are considered adults.
"While there is no forced conscription among our ranks, there are certain definitions that are different from [the western norms]. These children identified so far by UNICEF are not really fighting on the frontlines, but are helping MILF communities," Kabalu was quoted as saying in a 2011 interview.
Kabalu added that in some instances, MILF looks after the children of Muslim parents who may have perished in the fighting.
The four-decades-long insurgency, combined with clan feuds, banditry, and the proliferation of firearms, has plagued much of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), located some 1,300 kilometers from Philippine capital Manila.
Peace, security, and thus economic progress, have eluded ARMM for a long time. According to Philippine statistics, the poverty rate in the region is twice as high as in the rest of the country. As one of the most impoverished areas in the Philippines, ARMM has consistently pulled down national averages when it comes to education indicators. Manila and surrounding areas, known as the National Capital Region, have the highest proportion of children who completed elementary education at 79 percent compared to 46 percent in ARMM.
The action plan between the MILF and UNICEF aims to prevent the recruitment and use of children, and pave the way for creating alternatives for children, such as helping them to stay in school.
"This is unlike other countries such as South Sudan, for example, where children are abducted from their parents and forced into fighting. The children are not separated from their parents and may not see themselves as combatants but just doing what they see their fathers doing," said Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Country Representative, speaking from Camp Darapanan, the MILF base camp in Maguindanao.
"Nonetheless, engaging a child in any form of military activity is harmful. The set-up needs to prevent this from happening and allow children to participate in other activities and give them enough opportunities to go to school," added Sylwander.
Moving towards peace
A Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) creating a new Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao and a key component of the peace deal between the MILF and the government failed to pass before the term of former President Benigno Aquino III ended on June 30.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who took over from Aquino, is the first Philippine president from Mindanao and many are hoping that he will be able to bring peace to the troubled south.
"Guarded optimism is the better word," said Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of the MILF Peace Panel.
"No one thought that the BBL would not pass under the Aquino government, but it didn't. We will continue to engage with the government, but we have been through this process for so long. The process is always the hardest part," said Iqbal.