Michael Wessells, senior child protection specialist for the Christian Children's Fund, speaks to students and faculty members in the President’s Dining Room on April 10, about his research on children and armed conflict. He shared testimonies from child soldiers that dealt with issues like violence and prevention and talked about his visits to countries where he helps develop programs that assist communities affected by armed conflict.
Soldiers are often affected the most in times of conflict and around the world these soldiers include some of the most innocent people: children.
The University of La Verne was privileged to host a Hot Spots lecture that featured Michael Wessells, a peace psychologist from Columbia University, who has worked extensively on the subject of child soldiers.
“This is an event that has come together in an interesting way.
Many groups were interested in the subject of child soldiers,” Chris Liang, associate professor of psychology said.
Liang invited Wessells to discuss the issues and his work in Africa, Asia and South America to counter the impact of conflict on these children and their communities.
The lecture was organized by a group of dedicated doctoral students of psychology and was supported by a host of faculty and students, including the Psi Chi honors society.
“With the war going on and children often affected, I thought the lecture would be interesting to listen to,” Vanessa Ocana, a graduate student and Psi Chi member, said.
Wessells, who is also the author of “Child Soldiers: From Violence To Prevention,” began his lecture with some common misconceptions related to children involved in war.
“There is a nasty stereotype going around that these children are bad seeds,” Wessells said. “I’m very interested in telling a story of hope.”
Children are often recruited in war zones around the world because they factor for about 50 percent of many populations.
Wessells said that many children are often used in conflict because they are cheap, easily manipulated, can be terrorized and are often used for special tasks.
“Children are increasingly used in armed conflict. To have any child ripped away and exploited in any way is unacceptable,” Wessells said.
He discussed the issues related to forced entry and non-forced entry which lead to a correlation between American gangs.
There are many reasons children enter war. They are often because of poverty, abuse, lack of education and health care.
“These children find meaning in fighting,” Wessells said.
They are often pulled into conflict to find a sense of family, get revenge, education and training.
These are often the push and pull factors that are related to why some young people decide to join gangs.
“There is a sense of status and belonging. And these parallels are well worth exploring,” Wessells said.
“I liked the part about gangs and how it correlates with why children become soldiers,” Ocana said.
When children are forced to engage in violence, looting and substance abuse, they can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and aggression.
“In my opinion a majority of children do not experience effects on a clinical level, usually on a psychosocial level,” Wessells said.
Through the Christian Children’s Fund Wessells was able to help start a program, “Sealing the Past, Facing the Future,” in Sierra Leone in West Africa to counter the effects related to child soldiers by increasing access to health care, education and reconciling the community.
“In my opinion the best model is a community based approach,” Wessells said.
Through this program the people of the village in Sierra Leone were able to build resilience and better livelihoods through health care, jobs, and brought ex-combatants back to the community.
This program was a success because through outside facilitation and not forceful suggestion the people of the village were able to achieve resiliency on their own.
Wessells ended his lecture telling those in attendance that he hopes that they will strive to send a message of hope.
The lecture proved to be an eye-opening experience that led to a question and answer discussion on the topic.
Francine Gobert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.