Suddenly Nepal is everywhere in the news: for human rights abuses, for the use of landmines, for child soldiers. In reports this week by the United Nations, Amnesty International and child welfare groups, Nepal now figures on various international lists with other countries ravaged by civil war: Afghanistan, Burundi, Sierra Leone.
A country profile released this month by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says that 30 percent of Maoist militia are underage. The coalition is a consortium of six international human rights organisations working on a global ban on use of children as soldiers and based its conclusion on data collected in 2000.
Estimates of child soldiers are notoriously unreliable. The underground group is elusive, and it is difficult to tell the age of many of the militia members. One reporter who visited Rolpa in April met many Maoists who looked like they were not more than 15 years old, but when asked they all said they were 18.
A National Human Rights Commission member after a tour of the midwest earlier this year estimated that about one forth of the Maoist combatants were children below the age of 18 years. Besides combatants, the Maoists also reportedly use teenage children as porters.
On the other hand, the security forces have also been accused of imprisoning children on suspicion that they are Maoists. The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the release of 16-year-old Diwakar Adhikari who has been in prison since he was arrested by the army on suspicion of being a Maoist. Human rights groups fighting
for Adhikari's release say he has been tortured.
In a country paper presented in the Asia-Pacific Conference held in Kathmandu two years ago, the coalition against child soldiers alleged that the Maoists were recruiting children below 15, with most of the children taking part in armed conflict in the 14-18 age bracket. Since then, the coalition has been attempting to create international pressure on the rebels to discontinue recruitment of under-18 children in its armed militia.
This is a sore point with the Maoist leadership, and they have repeatedly denied recruiting children. A Maoist negotiator to the last year's peace talks with the government, Krishna Bahadur Mahara in his 14 November interview with CNN dismissed the allegation as "baseless". But he admitted that the revolution has the support of children and also admitted having "young revolutionaries" in the Maoist cause.
The international coalition's lobbying with the United Nations to name the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in a Security Council resolution appears to have succeeded with the release of Secretary General Kofi Anan's report on Monday in which the Maoists figure among 23 governments and rebel movements using child fighters (See "Killing with impunity", p5). The UN earlier appointed a special representative to investigate the use of children by the Maoists.
The success of the consortium's lobbying efforts, activists here hope, will put added pressure on the Maoists to respect the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. There has been no official reaction yet to the UN report, and the Maoists themselves are expected to formally repeat their denial that they are using underage soldiers.
The Human Rights and Peace Society (HURPES) in Kathmandu has been leading a local informal coalition against child soldiering. The group's spokesperson, Krishna Pahadi, claims that the rebel leadership has realised it is under pressure, but is still "in the denial stage".
He added: "Awareness against the recruitment of underage children have certainly increased within the Maoist leadership-although they have not stopped the practice." Human rights organisations have reported an increased recruitment drive in the hinterland, where Maoists have forced families to give at least one teenage child to the movement for training into the militia. This has resulted in a massive out-migration of young boys and girls, even from districts near Kathmandu.
While denying that they use child soldiers, the Maoist leadership has said that increasing numbers of women in their militia has meant that "children have been drawn into the process of war". It has said that a large number of children in rural areas were contributing "sustainably" in the war effort and that they were an asset for the future of the revolution.
Experience of other conflicts have shown that an overwhelming number of child soldiers come from uprooted families, and from marginalised groups and minorities. Children of families who have been victims of human rights abuse by the security forces also need no inducement to join the revolution.
"There has been a sudden increase of homeless children in district headquarters and towns near Maoist-affected districts," says Gauri Pradhan of the child welfare group, CWIN. A recent survey in Rukum found that out of 1,000 people displaced, about 300 were children and many were ripe for recruitment. Janjati and Dalit children have been found in the Maoist "People's Army", and 80 percent of Maoists reportedly killed in encounters with security forces are from Janjati or Dalit communities.
"In my experience the majority of children actively involved in armed insurgency are motivated by other reasons, and are not coerced into the conflict," says Pradhan. The current Maoist campaign to close schools is expected to provide a fresh spurt of young recruits for the movement.