Further Reading

Case Study:
Military conscription/ Impressment

Russian conscript in Chechnya, 1999

Historical cases:
Paraguay, 1864-70
Armenia, 1915
Nationalist China, 1930s-1940s

Current cases:
Child soldiers


Military conscription is a variant, perhaps the most destructive one, of corvée (forced) labour, an institution that has led to millions of overwhelmingly male deaths throughout history. As with corvée and imprisonment/incarceration, Gendercide Watch does not consider military conscription in and of itself to be a gendercidal institution. It is clearly a profoundly gender-selective one, however. And in many historical and current cases, the coerciveness of the conscription campaign (e.g., the use of "press- gangs" to round up draft evaders), and/or the sheer death-toll among conscripted males (particularly lower-class and less-educated males), warrants use of the term "gendercide." Conscription should also be understood as a major means by which ordinary men are brutalized and indoctrinated into committing atrocious and genocidal acts against civilian populations or disarmed enemy forces.

Conscription as gendercide:
Historical cases

Paraguay, 1864-70

The case of Paraguay during its war against the "Triple Alliance" countries (Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina) is an ambiguous one from a gendercide standpoint, since a high degree of voluntarism prevailed among the Paraguayan conscripts. But there is little doubting the gendercidal result of the slaughter. The most destructive war in Latin American history began as a dispute over post-colonial boundaries and passage on the Paraná River. Paraguay's modernizing dictator, Francisco Solano López, also believed he could win a war on the basis of his latest-generation military hardware and European advisors, and perhaps seize some territory from Argentina and Brazil in the process. But when Paraguay failed to win a decisive early result, the war bogged down into the kind of positional warfare that would not be seen again until the trenches of World War I. The result was a grinding war of attrition that dealt a particularly savage blow to Paraguay's male population, more and more of whom were fed into the inferno. After the Allies seized the capital of Asunción in 1869, "López retreated into the bush with his hugely outnumbered forces, which by now had conscripted almost all able-bodied males in the country, including the aged and boys as young as 10. Many of these, lacking adequate weapons, fought using clubs, machetes and farm implements." (Lonely Planet, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay [Lonely Planet Publications, 2002], pp. 663-64.)

Finally, with López trapped and killed, the war ended in 1870. Writes Charles Kolinski: "Few defeated nations in the world's military history exhibited such a degree of devastation as the Paraguay of 1870. Its population, now estimated at only 221,000, had suffered war casualties of at least 220,000 people. Among the survivors there were only 28,000 men; women over fifteen were said to outnumber men at a ratio of more than four to one." (Kolinski, Independence or Death!, p. 198). The Third World Guide gives the death-toll as one million, and reports: "The only males left alive were babies -- which the victors sought out eagerly to kidnap and sell as slaves in Brazil -- and very old men." (Third World Guide, Bogota: Instituto del Tercer Mundo, 1992, p. 476.)

As with Stalin's purges in the USSR and the Congo "rubber terror", the demographic effects were still being felt decades later -- well into the twentieth century, in fact, when they were buttressed by further carnage in the Chaco War with Bolivia (1932-35), which Paraguay "won" at a cost of 50,000 men. The gendercide of Paraguay's males even entered into myth. A 1935 novel about Paraguay by Katharina von Dombrowski was entitled Land of Women: The Tale of A Lost Nation. It began: "Far away, in the heart of a continent, lies a land that for many years has been called The Land of Women, because the men were almost entirely wiped out in the great war of South America." (Richard Gott, Land Without Evil, pp. 87, 89 [n. 19].)

As is so often the case, there are wheels within gendered wheels -- in this case recalling the mention of male children sold into slavery (above), and bearing on the linkage between military conscription and corvée labour. Gott writes at p. 87 of Land Without Evil: "One British observer commented on the shortage of Paraguayan men before the outbreak of the Paraguayan War, blaming it on the incidence of child labour. 'It is said that the women are much more numerous than the men,' Edward Thornton wrote from Asuncion [the Paraguayan capital] to Lord Russell in London in September 1864, 'and that this disproportion arises from the number of males who are destroyed by being forced to the severest labour with scanty food, long before they have arrived at their full strength.'"

Armenia, 1915

Armenia offers a singular instance of a truly massive gendercide in which military conscription was intentionally and directly used as a tool to murder hundreds of thousands of young males -- "official Turkish accounts" themselves acknowledge that about 800,000 were killed once the men had been concentrated in this manner. As with the Rwandan and arguably the Jewish genocides, the liquidation of the younger male population was intended to reduce the entire community "to a condition of near-total helplessness, thus an easy prey for destruction." (See Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus [Providence, RI: Berghahn Books, 1995], p. 226.) The process by which the gendercide of Armenian men was implemented, and the subsequent gendercidal rape/murders of Armenian women, receive separate case-study treatment on this website.

Nationalist China, 1930s-1940s

The atrocities inflicted on Nationalist conscript troops in the Republic of China, during the wars of the 1930s and 1940s against both the Japanese and Communist Chinese forces, constitute a little-known instance of conscription-as-gendercide. At least three million Chinese men -- perhaps a great many more -- were starved, murdered, or worked to death in one of the harshest conscription regimes ever enforced. (This does not include the many hundreds of thousands of "battle age" males killed by the Japanese after capture, or culled from the civilian population in occupied territories. See the case-study of The Nanjing Massacre for details of the worst atrocities.)

From the time the Nationalist regime concluded its battles against regional warlords in 1927, it was, under "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek, "authoritarian and militaristic, really fascist in outlook and style," according to R.J. Rummel. "Chiang Kai-shek saw as ideal a government organized and government along military lines." (Rummel, Death By Government, p. 124.) Within this system, writes Rummel, the Nationalist conscript soldier

was considered scum, lower than vermin. He was beaten, mistreated, often fed poorly and ill paid. Nationalist officers squeezed their soldiers' rations, leaving many of them to endure nutritional deficiencies and to barely survive on the verge of starvation. The soldiers often wore the same uniforms throughout winter; they generally had no soap or bathing facilities in their army camps; kitchens may have been located near latrines; drinking water was seldom boiled; and they ate out of the same pot. Sanitary and medical practices were very primitive, if present at all. Disease was widespread, of course, with malaria being the most prevalent. Some soldiers could not go even a short distance; many died along the side of the road from disease or starvation. Those too sick or weak were sometimes dumped on stretchers along the road to die. Wrote one reporter: 'where troops have passed, dead soldiers can be found by the roadside one after another.' During the redeployment of one supposedly good outfit that could still fight, 30 percent of the soldiers died while marching 500 miles.

The description is strikingly similar to the conditions inflicted on Soviet prisoners of war by Nazi occupying forces in 1941-42. But the Chinese conscript who had actually reached military ranks was the lucky one. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, U.S. commander in China from 1944, wrote to Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek that "Conscription comes to the Chinese peasant like famine or flood, only more regularly -- every year twice -- and claims more victims. Famine, flood, and drought compare with conscription like chicken pox with plague." White and Jacoby described a typical "black-market recruit" as "a trussed-and-bound victim of the press gangs, ... sold for ... the purchase price of five sacks of white rice or three pigs. In one Szechwan district the village headman stationed himself at a crossroads with armed soldiers and seized a fifty-year-old man and his grandson. The boy was leading the grandfather to hospital, but it made no difference; off they went to the recruit camp." (Both quoted in Death By Government, p. 130.) Rummel reports:

Conscription generally descended like an act of a malevolent God on poor and defenseless men. Peasants in the field, workers going to their job in the morning, or men caught on a road could be jumped on by troops, manacled together and marched off to a camp tens, if not hundreds, of miles away. ... Resistance meant death or mutilation. Those who could not keep up as they trudged toward a camp might be shot. Those who tried to escape usually were shot. Those who disobeyed orders often were shot. Moreover, on the way to camp conscripts were poorly fed, if at all. Some starved to death on the way. And there was no medical help if they became sick. In short, they were treated even worse than soldiers already on active duty. Foreigners would often report seeing these sad lines of ragtag conscripts chained together shuffling along with their heads down under armed excort like so many chain-gang prisoners. ... Often only 10 percent of the conscripts would arrive alive. ... Those that survived found camp conditions little better and the mortality hardly less. Of 40,000 conscripts arriving at a camp near Chengtu [Chengdu] during one conscription drive, no more than 8,000 remained alive by the end of the drive. When the news about the Nazi concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald broke, doctors working in one Chinese army camp could hardly be horrified: the description of the Nazi camps was little different from that of the ones they were working in, they said. (Death By Government, pp. 129- 30.)

How many victims did Nationalist conscription claim? "Of the 14 million the nationalists record as being conscripted during the Sino-Japanese War, Professor Ch'i Hsi-Sheng points out that about 11 million either deserted or 'perished.' Mentioning the same number of conscripts, Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby come up with 7 million dead or missing. ... For demographer Ho Ping-ti, it 'would be surprising' if the number of deaths was less than the official number of battle killed and wounded -- 3,081,293 men. It seems to me that something near this number would be a most prudent estimate of this incredible democide. Even then it is close to the total military battle dead for Germany in all of World War II, and twice the number for Japan; only the Soviet Union lost in battle more soldiers than the numbers of these poor conscripts who died at the hands of press-gangs or their own soldiers. And this calculation does not even include those killed in or dying from the conscription drives during the subsequent civil war," which he estimates "may have cost more than 1,100,000 additional lives." (Death By Government, pp. 130-31.)

Rummel's account of "The Depraved Nationalist Regime" also brings out the brutalization of Chinese women, men, children, and the elderly that was the near-inevitable concomitant of gendercidal conscription. "This despicable treatment of soldiers was nearly democidal in itself, but what is most salient here is that these miserable soldiers could hardly treat civilians with much more sympathy. Where nationalist Chinese armies were garrisoned or passed, villages and peasants in the field might suffer looting, burning, rape, and murder, often abetted if not condoned by [the soldiers'] officers. After all, it was the soldier's compensation." (Death By Government, pp. 130-31.) He cites one account to the effect that "Persons too old to move and who remained in the towns were killed as traitors" by the marauding troops and officers. This phenomenon Gendercide Watch refers to as geracide (the selective killing of the elderly, infirm, and disabled; see also the discussion of the Croatian geracide against Serb civilians in 1995, part of the wider discussion of genocide and gendercide in Bosnia-Herzegovina).

Current cases


The civil war in Angola has pitted government forces against rebels of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA army ever since Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975. A quarter of a century later, the conflict shows no signs of ebbing, and military conscription has been imposed with a rigour matched by few countries in the world. Chris McGrel reported in mid-1999, after the latest conscription campaign:

This is not a good year for the self-styled "João the Survivor" to turn 21. A few weeks before his birthday the Angolan army called up men born in 1978 to throw into the resurgent war against Unita rebels. The sons of the wealthy quickly bought exit visas and tickets to Portugal or South Africa. Some of the poor reported for duty. João entered a nether world in hiding. The army predicted it would net 30,000 recruits in the call-up. It ended up with fewer than 8,000, so it has been press- ganging youths into a war that has already claimed 500,000 lives and has never been more unpopular. João lives in a room at the back of his mother's flat in the capital, Luanda. Trusted neighbours know about him. Others are told he is abroad. He is clear about why he does not want to fight. "This war started before I was born. Then there was a reason to fight. Now the poor die and the politicians and generals get rich buying weapons, and the war just goes on forever. This is not a war to fight," he said. (Chris McGreal, "Profits fuel Angola's war," Guardian Weekly, July 8-14 1999.)

The Economist profiled another "João" who had answered the call-up. The account vividly conveys the material pressures that drive many young Angolan men into army ranks:

João Mendes is 20 years old, softly spoken and studious. He lives in Luanda, Angola's capital, and has just reached his 12th and final year of school -- no mean feat in a country where formal education hardly exists. He had planned to study chemical engineering at Angola's only unversity in September and, on graduation, to get a job in the booming oil industry. Unfortunately for Jãao -- and for Angola, because the country desperately needs people like him -- he is unlikely to realise this ambition. João is about to go to war. ... The recruits can expect a couple of weeks' training, before being sent to the front to face UNITA's new weapons. Cannon meat, they say, their cynicism made more bitter because many children of the ruling elite were spirited abroad before the call-up. For most, such as João, there is no escape. Schools would report draft-dodgers, the university would reject them. In any event, press-gangs will, it is widely believed, search the city house by house. João, therefore, has decided to report for duty and, oddly, most of those who have say they were not born in 1978 [the cohort being conscripted]. Manuel, for example, was born in 1979 and came voluntarily. Why did he volunteer? Because the alternative was to sit at home, unemployed. Most other volunteers tell the same story. Patriotism or folly? Neither. Everyone knows that the Angolan army places little value on the lives of its soldiers. They rarely get paid. But they do get a gun and a uniform, and that means they can harass and rob other Angolans at will. That the government is press-ganging recruits indicates just how desperate is the country's plight. ... The war that everyone said neither side could win may now be a fight to the death. Those to die first will be innocent civilians and press-ganged recruits. ("Queuing up to die," The Economist, 24 April 1999.)

A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch, Angola Unravels, also explored the abuses of government conscription policies. "JZ," a street-trader in Luanda, described one roundup there:

This was a difficult period for me. I couldn't do business because of rusgas [conscription]. They were targeting young men and putting them in trucks and then taking them to the airport and flying them to other provinces so they couldn't escape. I saw some ten rusgas in July; some of my friends were grabbed. [The town of] Escuanza was very bad, especially by the market. They would appear quickly and grab you -- you had to watch out. They don't do it in town, because people will complain. They want those who have no voice.

The organization noted that "The pattern of forced recruitment indicated a policy of preying on poor communities and unemployed young men. Those who could prove that they had jobs usually were released, and those with financial means could buy their way out of the military."


Ethiopian prisoners in Eritrean custody
after renewed fighting in May-June 2000.

Ethiopian prisoners in Eritrean custody, June 2000.The Tigrayan-dominated regime that seized power in Ethiopia in 1991 at first agreed to the secession of Eritrea in 1993, which ended the world's longest-running civil war and met longstanding Eritrean aspirations for nationhood. Eritrean rebel forces had, in fact, cooperated with their Tigrayan counterparts during long years of struggle to overthrow the military regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. But Ethiopia's claim to Eritrea, which had previously constituted its entire coastline, would not be so rapidly resolved. It flared into battles along seemingly-insignificant stretches of desert border, the disputes supposedly arising from different maps prepared by Italian or British occupiers of Eritrea, but fuelled for the most part by Tigrayan expansionism and a desire to recover strategic access to the Red Sea. Very quickly, the largest land war in Africa was underway, and it resurrected the pattern of former Ethiopian campaigns against Eritrean rebels during the 1970s and 1980s. Massed armies of undertrained Ethiopian conscripts were flung into the teeth of fortified Eritrean positions; the number of killed is probably in the low tens of thousands at the time of writing. In recent warfare, the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict is probably matched only by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s as a World War One-style meat-grinder. In mid-1999, the distinguished war correspondent David Hirst described one of the bloodiest battles of the war:

Nearly two months after the battle of Tsorona, the bloodiest yet of this desert "border war," Ethiopian soldiers still lie unburied on the baking plain, just metres from Eritrean trenches. A fifth of Eritrean combatants are women. "I was born in Addis Ababa [the Ethiopian capital]," said Agib Haile, aged 21. "Ethiopians are my friends. It was horrible." The horror was less in what Eritreans themselves suffered than in what they inflicted on the enemy. The Ethiopian commanders' strategy was simple. Deploying tens of thousands of barely trained recruits along a 5km front, they drove them forward, wave upon wave, with the aim of blowing them up on minefields until they had cleared a path to the Eritrean front line for better trained infantry, mechanised forces and armour. ... It didn't work: the soldiers hardly raised their weapons, but linked hands in communal solace in the face of certain death from mines, the trenches, perfectly aimed artillery and their own officers, who shot them if they turned and ran. This was the horror of which Ms. Haile and her companions spoke, of mowing down the horde till their Kalashnikovs were too hot to hold.

Hirst adds that the present Ethiopian regime is "a thin democratic facade for a Tigrayan supremacy that was even more extreme than that of the Amharans" under the old Ethiopian military regime. "Tigrayans dominated the administration, security services, police and army. ... It was Oromo peasants who were selected as human minesweepers, and Tigrayan officers who shot them from the rear. Yet the TPLF [Tigrayan People's Liberation Front] showed hardly less contempt for its own people. Local Tigrayan villagers were pressed into that suicidal train, and many Tigrayan soldiers died in tanks." (Hirst, "Ethiopia strikes out for the sea," Guardian Weekly, May 30 1999.) Conscription policies thus overlapped with ethnicity, class, and other variables (notably age), the standard pattern the world over. The result in the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict is mass killing that, if not gendercide strictly viewed, must still be seen as a profoundly gender-selective slaughter -- one of the worst of the post-World War II era, in fact. This is especially true in that, as with the Iran-Iraq conflict, the Ethiopian/Eritrean war has been confined so far to thinly-populated border areas, and has not swept up large numbers of civilians in the killing -- apart from the young men press-ganged as minesweepers and cannon fodder. (The Eritrean military is the only one in the world that conscripts women into active combat service, but casualties have been much lower on the Eritrean side, as Hirst's account of the Tsorona battle suggests.) (Update: In June 2000, after renewed fighting that saw a rearmed Ethiopia make major gains, the two belligerents agreed to a ceasefire. The border issue, however, remains unresolved.)


The regime of Saddam Hussein, in power in Iraq since 1979, has inflicted genocidal and gendercidal atrocities against the Kurds, the Shi'ites in the south, and other populations. The gendercidal component has extended also to the domestic sphere, leading to horrific abuses against deserters and draft avoiders among the Iraqi male population. As the account below indicates, the degree of force necessary to drum up conscripts increased steadily after the "nationalist" war against Iran was replaced by the campaigns against domestic minorities and the Kuwaitis. A Reuters dispatch in 1994, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, profiled "Athir, a 22-year-old deserter from the Iraqi army, [who] was terrified he would be hunted down and have his ears or limbs chopped off." He accordingly "fled to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to join a growing number of ex-soldiers there," where he told his tale:

"I deserted in September '93 and escaped through Mosul to Kurdistan this October because of the cutting off of ears and hands," he said through an interpreter ... Hundreds of deserters have fled to the north since Baghdad instated a law in early September making desertion from President Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army punishable by the amputation of ears, hands or feet, and the tattooing of their foreheads. A young doctor from a military hospital in Baghdad said 1,700 mutilations had taken place up to mid-September, when he fled to Salahuddin in the north. "The deserters were collected and sent to hospitals, where we would cut off one or both of their ears -- or rather the outer part of the earlobe because the whole ear is so difficult," said the doctor who called himself Dr. Kamal. "We had to perform the operation whether or not local anaesthetic was available," he said. "Some also had their hands amputated from the wrist or their feet cut off. Some had lines or crosses tattooed on their foreheads.

"The deserters are sent to us by the military court, they go to jail and are tried afterwards," he said. "They come to us tied up, their hair cut. Some panic and scream, some are too scared to. They are unclean and unhealthy, many are psychologically ill and suffer from diseases such as scabies. They are shoved into crowded cells and no treatment is allowed once they leave us, even though there is often severe bleeding after 24 hours and swelling and infection." Military doctors who dared to refuse to perform the operation were dealt with very severely, he said. Some were executed. Those who do the operations fear tribal retribution. ... [one officer who deserted] said there were few deserters during the 1980-1988 war with Iran. He said soldiers began deserting because of Saddam's "foolish behaviour" since, including his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and campaigns against Iraqi people such as the Kurds and Shi'ite Moslems. Many had deserted because they could not afford to support their families, he said. (Suna Erdem, "Iraqi army deserters go north to escape mutilation," Reuters World Report, October 31 1994.)


Russia offers possibly the worst case of abuses and atrocities against conscript troops, though its pursuit of draft "dodgers" is not as savage as some other countries'. Most of the worst cases are found within the Russian military itself, where murders, suicides, starvation, and torture are rife. In a 1998 feature, The Economist described life and death in the brutal Russian army:

For an entrance to a death-machine, the conscription centre in eastern Moscow looks remarkably inoffensive. The 1.5m-strong Russian armed forces killed 1,270 of their own young men last year according to official figures, though some observers say the number could be five times higher. For comparison, nine years [of fighting] in Afghanistan cost -- officially -- 15,000 Soviet lives. In recent years, some have even died of cold or malnutrition. Yet the new conscripts and their mothers, strolling recently through these warm, well-painted corridors at the start of the autumn call-up, provide dutiful explanations of why they want to serve their country. "It'll make a man of him," says one mother, whose younger son is among the autumn's total of 158,000 conscripts. As a means of manly education, two years in Russia's army leave a lot to be desired. Dedovshchina, the routine bullying of new conscripts by their seniors, is so brutal that it produces dozens of suicides. Officers can behave horribly: not long ago one of them had two soldiers thrown into a three-metre-deep pit -- as was revealed when the pit cover collapsed in the night, killing one of the soldiers.

For modern warfare, which generally requires small armies of ready-to-go professionals, there is little military point in conscription. Russia sticks with it chiefly because the country cannot afford a fully professional force. Soldiers spend much of their time foraging for food. Recently, the defence ministry advised them to catch fish and pick wild mushrooms to supplement their winter diet. ... Some of the more senior [officers] act as brokers for their juniors' forced labour on building sites or in the fields. ... "The army is slavery, and we are slaves," says Vladimir Skripkin, of the Anti-Militarist Radical Association, which campaigns against conscription.

As the above account illustrates, one of the biggest problems is dedovshchina (hazing), the rituals by which younger and weaker conscripts are humiliated and brutalized by their officers and peers. According to Le Monde, the practice may be traced back to the 1980s, "when the army began to allow into its ranks common-law criminals who introduced practices they had learnt in labour camps. Others see the phenomenon as an integral part of Russian society, which is excessively hierarchical." One soldier's letter, described as typical, read as follows: "Dear Mother ... Shortly after I joined the regiment on October 27 I was beaten up in the canteen by Sergeant R. because he thought I'd given him 'a dirty look.' Next day, although I had got leave for family reasons, I was prevented from leaving by the commander of our battalion because my bruises were too visible. They shut me up for a week on a diet of bread and water. A week later, five of the dyadi [soldiers who have served for more than a year] hit me with their belt buckles because I'd washed the floor of their barrack-room without permission. I got hit repeatedly on the head, in the ribs and in the genitals. I passed out." (Marie Jego, "Missing, presumed bullied to death," Le Monde, May 2 1996 [in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, June 9 1996].)

Daniel Williams of the UK Guardian Weekly described "Volodya, a young man with boyish fuzz on his lean cheeks," who, fearing death, "deserted, fled to St. Petersburg and hid in the anonymous high-rise neighborhoods of the city's periphery":

Volodya has joined the legion of deserters and draft dodgers on the run from the army, a once-proud institution that has become a chamber of horrors spread across 11 time zones. Unrestrained hazing and material deprivation await youths who answer their country's call to serve. Killings, suicides and abuse are the backdrop of a soldier's life. ... The Defense Ministry says 42,000 deserters are on the lam at any time. Officials are defensive or dismissive about complaints that the service is brutal. But hardly a month goes by without some scandal reaching the public eye.

Williams interviewed Volodya at the offices of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in St. Petersburg, where "mothers and sons learn how to avoid the draft":

Co-chairman Ella Poliakova opened a recent lecture with a brief eulogy for Pvt. Sergei Floch, 18, who his officers say hanged himself with his leather belt in his barracks. Poliakova had investigated and found the explanation wanting. Floch had written to his parents of beatings and abuse, imploring, "Don't let my brother join the army." Poliakova and an assistant inspected Floch's zinc box when his remains were returned to St. Petersburg and found that he was not dressed in his own uniform and had scratches on his hands and slashes on his neck. At the base, Poliakova said, soldiers told her that a barracks bully had been arrested and spirited off the day Floch's body was found. An initial death certificate included descriptions of blows to the head and internal injuries. Then another certificate was issued saying his death was caused by hanging. "If it is a suicide, the army does not have to pay for the burial. So it is always a suicide," Poliakova told the audience. (Williams, "Russian Conscripts Fear Enemy in Own Ranks," Guardian Weekly [date unavailable].)

The Soldiers' Mothers of Russia was founded by Lyubov Lymar "after the body of her son, Oleg, an army sergeant, was found with his tongue cut off." The organization claimed (in 1992) "40,000 cases each year of murders, maimings and suicides of junior military conscripts. The group also wants the government to pay compensation to the families of victims." ("Mothers protest deaths in Russian army," The Globe and Mail, August 4 1992.) During the disastrous Russian war in Chechnya (1994-95), the organized carried out what one Committee member referred to as "the biggest unauthorised kidnapping of soldiers by their mothers" yet attempted. They succeeded in securing the release of many of their children captured by Chechen separatists (Jego, "Missing, presumed bullied to death"). Similar strategies were attempted during the renewed Russian campaign in Chechnya in 1999.

2002 Update: A report by Eve Conant in Newsweek suggests that the situation in the Russian armed forces has changed little since the original version of this case-study was written. Conant writes:

Thousands of conscripts each year die as a result of brutal hazing, accidents, deteriorating health and living conditions and plain negligence. Hepatitis, dystrophy, malnutrition and tuberculosis are common among conscripts, recently joined by HIV, drug addiction and mental illness. Suicide rates are sky-high and rising. Desertion and draft dodging are epidemic -- one of every 10 recruits -- to the point that police and military forces have begun special operations to round them up. Conscripts bear the brunt of ingrained corruption, in some cases even being sold out for services of varying legitimacy. At one Defense Ministry base in Moscow, they have been forced into male prostitution, according to the Union of the Committees of Soldier's Mothers of Russia ... Officers and older soldiers prey on recruits, extorting money and favors from the likes of 20-year-old Dimitry, who sits quietly in a hallway at the union, seeking its protection. "The commanders force me to go home each month and collect money for them," he says. His brother Yakov elaborates: "If he doesn't return, he's a deserter; if he comes back empty-handed, they'll make him an invalid."

However, Constant points to some positive recent trends. At the time of writing, the Russian parliament was debating legislation to allow social-service exemptions for conscripts, with a view to transforming the Russian military into an all-volunteer force by the year 2010. (See Eve Conant, "Remaking the Army", Newsweek, February 18, 2002.)

Child soldiers

Child soldier in Sierra Leone. Photo by Paul Sterk:
click on the image to link to Dr. Sterk's homepage,
which includes relevant images and resources.

Child soldier in Sierra Leone.  Photo by Paul Sterk: click on the image to link to Dr. Sterk's homepage, which includes relevant images and resources.The phenomenon of child soldiers has a long lineage -- and definitions of "childhood" have also evolved over time. (Napoleon's commissioning as a second lieutenant at age 16 was exceptional, but not unthinkable.) It is fair to say, however, that at no time in the last millennium have children and youths played such a large part in conflicts worldwide. The gendering of the phenomenon is not exclusively male, but it is overwhelmingly so; and in its targeting of the very youngest and most malleable boys among the population, its gendercidal features have an added pernicious edge. Peter Goodspeed of the National Post reported in 1999 from Sierra Leone where young boys, "abducted from their families or forcibly recruited during attacks on local villages ... are offered few choices. They are usually just told: 'You either fight or we will kill you.'"

"International relief agencies estimate there may be more that 10,000 child combatants in Sierra Leone," Goodspeed writes. "Before being pushed onto the battlefield, the children serve as combatants, cooks, informants, porters, sentries, and spies. Sometimes the youngest are used as human mine detectors, forced to walk through suspected minefields ahead of regular troops. When the children are first introduced to killing, they are forced to commit horrible acts simply to reinforce their isolation and to bind them more closely to their army ..."

A Dutch doctor working with the children in Sierra Leone, Dr. Paul Sterk, described them as "very traumatized" and exhibiting "aggressive, unsociable behaviour." "At least half of them have some sort of psychiatric disorder, ranging from schizophrenia to deep depression," Sterk said. "A lot will kill themselves -- or others. They've never really had a life. They were stolen from their family at the age of six and now, when you find them being demobilized at 12 or 14, they are in very bad shape. They have been isolated and mutilated and traumatized. They have been taught to live by different standards."

Goodspeed cites an Amnesty International report claiming "there are now more than 300,000 child soldiers fighting in 30 armed conflicts around the world. In addition, a total of 44 countries recruit people younger than 18 for military service. In most cases, the children being exploited as tools of adult hatred are boys, aged 12 to 16." Some examples:

In modern conflicts, child soldiers have been common in the streets of Belfast, the mountains of Afghanistan, and the slums of Central America. But it is in Africa and Asia that the most horrendous examples have caught the world's attention. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers have relied on child soldiers to bolster their forces, equipping 13-year-olds with cyanide suicide capsules and automatic rifles. ... In Uganda, child soldiers make up 85% of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a bizarre rebel group, based in southern Sudan, that has been fighting to overthrow the Ugandan government. (Peter Goodspeed, "A world where children become soldiers, at gunpoint", National Post, January 18 1999.)

In Colombia, which receives separate case-study treatment on this website, the government "openly encouraged" children to serve in the army, offering a "mandatory term [of conscription] for those under eighteen [that] was up to twelve months less than the mandatory term for adult males." Law 48, passed in 1993, "required all Colombian males who have either reached eighteen years of age or or have completed secondary school (bachillerato) to define their military status, in effect invalidating Colombia's international commitment. Boys who graduated before reaching eighteen were required to either state why they were ineligible for service or present themselves for induction into active service." Finally, "after widespread protest from the parents of child soldiers ... Congress passed Law 418 in 1997, exempting boys from obligatory military service until their eighteenth birthdays. Nevertheless, boys under eighteen who choose to serve may still do so with parental permission. ... According to the armed forces, 7,685 children currently serve in the National Police, 7,551 in the army, 338 in the air force, and eighty-three in the navy, a total of 15,657. Of those, 22 percent, or 3,445 children, are fifteen and sixteen years of age."

The main agents of the Colombian slaughter are the country's fearsome paramilitary units, usually linked to large landowners or drug-traffickers. "According to the Office of the Public Advocate, up to 50 percent of some paramilitary units are made up of children. One former child paramilitary ... said he had been forcibly recruited at nine years of age. ... Children as young as eight years of age have been seen patrolling with paramilitary units in the Middle Magdalena region [a paramilitary heartland]. ... Other children are used as backup troops, to spy and patrol in their home regions."

As for Colombia's powerful guerrilla forces, "up to 30 percent of some guerrilla units are made up of children," according to Human Rights Watch. "The number of children in militias, considered a training ground for future fighters, can be much higher." The organization notes that "Often, children are given the task of collecting intelligence, making and deploying mines, and serving as an advance shock force, to ambush the paramilitaries, soldiers, or police officers serving on point during patrols. To control his fear, one child guerrilla told the Public Advocate's Office investigators, he and other children drank milk mixed with gunpowder." (Human Rights Watch, "Little Bells and Little Bees: The Forced Recruitment of Children", ch. 6 of War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law, 1998.)

In a 1999 report, Stop The Use of Child Soldiers!, Human Rights Watch pointed to the particular vulnerabilities of children in wartime. "Because of their emotional and physical immaturity ... they are easily manipulated and can be drawn into violence that they are too young to resist or understand. Technological advances in weaponry have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers. Lightweight automatic weapons are simple to operate, and can be used by children as easily as adults."

Link to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child SoldiersThe social and material pressures underlying the phenomenon are also clearly brought out in the report. "Children are most likely to become child soldiers if they are poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in a combat zone or have limited access to education. Orphans and refugees are particularly vulnerable to recruitment. Lack of education draws many children into armed groups. In Afghanistan, where 90 percent of children are now thought to have no access to schooling, the proportion of soldiers who are children is believed to have risen in recent years from 30 to 45 percent. In southern Sudan in the 1980's and early 1990's, thousands of young Sudanese boys were lured hundreds of kilometers from their homes with promises of education, only to be thrust into military training and battle. Many children join armed groups because of economic or social pressure, or because children believe that the group will offer food or security. Others are forcibly recruited, 'press-ganged' or abducted by armed groups.".

It is not just boys who are targeted. "Both girls and boys are used as child soldiers. In case studies in El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda, almost a third of the child soldiers were reported to be girls. Girls may be raped, or in some cases, given to military commanders as 'wives.'"

Human Rights Watch points out that "no peace treaty to date has recognized the existence of child soldiers, or made provisions for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Many former child soldiers do not have access to the educational programs, vocational training, family reunification, or even food and shelter that they need to successfully rejoin civilian society. As a result, many end up on the street, become involved in crime, or are drawn back into armed conflict."

How many die?

The death-toll from military conscription worldwide is impossible to ascertain. It is unclear, for example, whether and in which cases one should include deaths in battle. The most that can be said is that the toll is probably in the tens of thousands annually, even if only "peacetime" atrocities and abuses are considered (including official or unofficial execution for military-related offenses). An extension of the gendercide framework to all conscript deaths, which Gendercide Watch considers excessively broad, would likely put the total in the hundreds of thousands annually. If civilian women, men, and children killed by the conscript troops are factored in, the total rises sharply.

Who is responsible?

I see the draft as the ultimate abuse of liberty. Morally it cannot be distinguished from slavery.
      - U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, "Keep Your Eye on the Target", Counterpunch, December 4, 2001.

Conscription and its variants -- the press-gang prime among them -- are practiced by a wide range of actors, from states/regimes to local communities and guerrilla forces. Any human-rights abuses as part of a military conscription effort -- including associated violence against others in the population -- should be laid primarily at the door of the sponsoring authority (although it is the responsibility of every conscript soldier to obey the laws of war).

The broader issue of military conscription is a highly contentious one. In the view of Gendercide Watch, however, conscription (whether gender-selective or gender-inclusive) must be seen as a form of forced labour which is at odds with fundamental human and civil rights. As our case-study of corvée labour makes clear, the reluctance of international bodies, particularly the International Labour Organization (ILO), to impose an outright ban on the use of adult males for forced labour is closely related to the continuing prevalence of gender-selective conscription policies. Accordingly, Gendercide Watch calls for the elimination of all policies of military conscription, and the transformation of military forces worldwide into purely volunteer-based institutions. In the meantime, Gendercide Watch emphatically supports the right of "battle age" men and women to conscientious objection from conscription, without fear of harassment or imprisonment. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1987 recognized "the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to compulsory military service as a legitimate exercise of the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion." (See Peace Pledge Union, "Military Conscription".) We support the right of "battle age" men and women to international freedom of movement, and we believe that fleeing conscription should be sufficient grounds for claiming refugee status in any country that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951.

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Researched and written by Adam Jones.
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