Imagine a child pointing a gun at a British soldier, or a child approaching your military convoy with what looks look an explosive belt — what would you do in that split second? How would you treat the child? These are precisely the difficult questions the British army is grappling with in Mali.
Mali’s population is one of the youngest in the world, with a median age of just 16. It is also one of the hardest places in the world to be a child according to the 2021 End of Childhood Index. Extreme poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, gender-based violence and early marriage are hallmarks of many children’s lives. Children here are also on the frontline of the climate crisis, with the Sahel region warming at a rate one and half times faster than the global average, causing devastating cycles of drought and flooding. An escalation in conflict in recent years means Mali is now grappling with an unprecedented emergency, which continues to worsen. More civilians were killed in conflict-related violence in Mali in 2020 than in any previous year. Today, 3.5 million children in the landlocked West African country are in need of humanitarian aid.
Since 2013 UN blue helmeted peacekeepers have been on the ground as part of the “United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali” (MINUSMA). MINUSMA is the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with the force taking some 209 fatalities to date. Back in 2019 in recognition of the increasing instability in the Sahel region, the UK Government authorised a British peacekeeping deployment to Eastern Mali. Then Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt explained that “in one of the world’s poorest and most fragile regions it is right that we support some of the world’s most vulnerable people and prioritise our humanitarian and security efforts in the Sahel”.
The first deployment of the British force has focused its mission on the protection of civilians and in their five months on the ground so far, the “Long Range Reconnaissance Group” has not been involved in any firefights. To better prepare for challenges around protecting children in conflict, the British military invited Save the Children and other NGOs to help mentor the pre-deployment exercises of the second battlegroup, 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment and 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, ahead of their arrival in Mali in May.
It was a fascinating week getting insight into the culture and ways of working of a UK force preparing to join a far bigger UN mission as well as advocating to the most operational aspects of our work around protecting children in conflict. Scenarios were played out at the Thetford Army Training Area in Norfolk and were designed to simulate an environment they can expect to face when on mission in Mali. Whilst an immersive environment is an excellent stage of training an obvious challenge is that child actors are not used (unsurprisingly) in military injects. Instead, adult actors led child-focused scenarios, which included the UN coming across armed children associated with the Malian army, children carrying weapons while guarding a residential compound, and a UN patrol doing low-level engagement in a village where a school had been closed due to threats from extremist groups in the area.
Towards the end of the exercise the Countess of Wessex arrived along with British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey MP, to observe a scenario involving the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mr Heappey explained to the Daily Telegraph how “fundamentally, the business of engaging with the whole population and understanding the needs of all levels of society, from children to women and men, is now the business of the core force”.
It is really positive to hear that the needs of children are such a priority. In December, the UN Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict expressed their “deep concern at the increase in the six grave violations which continue to be committed against children affected by armed conflict in Mali.” In 2019, the UN recorded 745 grave violations against children in Mali compared to 544 in 2018 and 386 in 2017. This is hundreds of children being killed or maimed in the conflict, abducted, recruited or used by armed groups, denied humanitarian access, seeing their schools and hospitals attacked, or experiencing sexual violence. 500 cases of recruitment and use of children by armed groups was verified in 2019 alone.
Whilst we shouldn’t overstate the impact that such a small force can have in such a short period of time, it is great to see the UK prioritise the protection of civilians and the UK military being open to bringing in external expertise to better prepare themselves to do it well.