Prof advocates for children in conflict

Shelly Whitman brings real world experiences into the Dal classroom with Children and War course


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Shelly Whitman teaches the Children and War class at Dalhousie University. (Photo: Kathryn MacDonald)

Professor Shelly Whitman leans against the podium as she finishes up the last lecture of the Children in War class for the semester.

The classroom is packed. Some students sit on the sideboards because there aren't enough seats.

The course, which explores the effect of war on children and child soldiers, started three years ago in the summer.

Demand for it grew so much that this year Dalhousie University asked Whitman to teach the course during the fall term as well.

Child Soldier Initiative

Dalhousie Centre for Foreign Policy Studies

CSI Youtube Channel

Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire


First-hand experience

Before Whitman began teaching at Dal she was a research consultant with UNICEF in New York working on the Rwanda Genocide Report. She travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and worked on the peace process for two years.

The armed group that was protecting Whitman and her colleagues was using child soldiers. Two 14-year-old boys were stationed outside her door with AK 47s. They had been there for 24 hours and she hadn't seen anyone feed them or give them a break.

When they asked her for cigarettes she said no because she was a neutral party. Whitman regretted that. "I started to feel like, gosh, I shouldn't have been so high and mighty," she says.

She ended up giving them some money instead. That was her first encounter with child soldiers.

After she completed her work in the DRC she stayed in Africa to teach at the University of Botswana. It was in Africa that she met her husband and where her three children were born.

A cheap resource

Whitman returned to the Congo this summer for two and a half weeks to observe the training of the UN and Congolese forces to deal with children in war.

She went to transit centres and met child soldiers who were being taken out of conflict.

On one occasion, as she shook their hands she realized that many were the same age as her son. Whitman had to turn away because tears had welled up in her eyes.

"As much I can talk about the horrific situations and as much research and as much reading as I do on it, there's something very real about when you look into a child's eyes and you recognize that they are like the very same child you have at home," she says.

There are an estimated 50,000 child soldiers working in the DRC. A lot of armed groups see child soldiers as an advantage.

In many of the countries where child soldiers are present, 50 per cent of the population is below the age of 18, so they seem like a natural resource to use.

"They are cheap," explains Whitman. "Most times you don't have to pay them, a lot of times they are abducted, or you may make promises to them like education or food or very small amounts of money. They are easily manipulated, easily indoctrinated."

Understanding through education

Whitman sees the Children and War class as a tool to spread awareness about the issue. Students from across all disciplines have taken the course and she hopes they will educate their family and friends.

Sam Holland, a third-year student taking the Children and War class, says, "It's one of those things where you see that she's not just someone who is sitting around. I'm not saying profs are boring but she's not just here working as a prof. She's active in the field. She's not just telling us what's happening; she's active in what's going on."

Whitman is the deputy director at Dalhousie's Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. She is also the director of the Child Soldiers Initiative (CSI), a project lead by Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire. Dallaire is a well-known Canadian senator, author and humanitarian.

As a result of Whitman's work, CSI moved their administrative and research headquarters to the centre on Dal campus.

CSI has been working to create a field guide for military and police to deal with child soldiers and are being flooded with requests from various governments and associations including the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

Whitman says that the Children in War class has a hopeful message.

"We have this perception that these kids when they go through what they go through and the acts they commit they come back as these hardened people," she says.

"But they aren't like that. They just want to be children."


great story kathryn!

Posted by sarah | Nov 19, 2021 3:27 PM AT

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