The Brief: Child Soldiers

The Brief: Child Soldiers

The Brief: Child Soldiers
October 28, 2012
Chelsea Holdsworth

child-soldiersThe prolific use of child soldiers around the world is an issue I care deeply about. Despite the fact that many countries have rules and regulations in place that protect the welfare of children, a great number of other countries are caught up in perpetual conflicts in which children are forced to participate.

Child soldiering is something that I will undoubtedly discuss many times over throughout this blog as it is an issue into which I invest a lot of myself. Please consider the following as an induction of sorts – a preparatory lesson for further posts on the topic.

Definition of a Child Soldier

By definition, a child soldier is any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys, and girls used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part

in hostilities. Paris Principles (2007)

Note that although the word ‘soldier’ is within the term child soldier, the definition encompasses more than just those kids who are active in combat positions; It includes any chore, duty or job that assists the mobilization of an armed group and furthers its success.

Putting a Number to the Problem

Current statistics that attempt to quantify the number of active child soldiers differ depending on the source. The numbers range anywhere from 250,000 – 300,000 and still many activists believe that 300,000 is an underestimation. According to international law, it is illegal to recruit and use child soldiers. In an attempt to avoid charges, armed groups’ refuse to admit to recruiting children thereby causing incomplete data.

Affected Countries

Although the exact number of child soldiers is up for debate, the UN has established an annual report that reviews the past years’ progression (or regression) on the issue. Last year marked the 11th Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict (released June 2012). The report listed 13 countries that are known to currently recruit and use, kill or maim and/or commit rape and other forms of sexual violence against children in conflict situations:

    • Afghanistan
    • Central African Republic
    • Chad
    • Colombia
    • Democratic Republic of the Congo
    • Iraq
    • Myanmar
    • Philippines
    • Somalia
    • Sudan / Southern Sudan
    • Syria
    • Yemen
    • Uganda

In the annexes of the report you can also find the exact armed groups that are known to recruit children within each of these countries. The use of child soldiers is can be seen in a wide variety of armed groups: government-backed paramilitary groups, militias and self-defence units, armed groups opposed to central governments, ethnic religious or minority/clan based groups who are fighting governments often times to defend a territory or resource.

The SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, says there has been progress made since the previous reporting period with regard to accountability for perpetrators of attacks on schools and hospitals. There has also been a system of deterrence for perpetrators of violations against children through the first judgment of the International Criminal Court on the war crime of recruitment and use of children, convicting Thomas Lubanga. Lastly, there has been progress with regards to further countries ratifying the Option Protocol and the signing of action plans to release children from armed groups.

Still the SRSG is concerned about the delays in the development of action plans for the release of children in some countries. Moreover, the SRSG points to the growing trend of killing and maiming children through the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Roles And Uses Of Child Soldiers

A diminishing adult population often plagues the countries in which child soldiers are used. As a result, the ratio of children to adults is exponentially greater, thereby causing an over abundance of kids. This means that once children are recruited into an armed group, they are often considered easily replaceable and are given the most dangerous tasks. They are often placed in situations deemed too dangerous for adult officers. Used as human shields, scouts, spies, sent on suicide missions or to the front lines, and even being sent into mine fields ahead of commanders “to clear the way”, children are at times, nothing more than living, breathing shields.

After the Cold War ended, weapons that had been handed out freely for decades past were never reclaimed (the most common of which is the AK47). These weapons are the driving force behind so many conflicts today. The proliferation of these small arms and light weapons make it incredibly easy for children to access them. The simplicity of the AK47 in particular ensures that even a 10 year old can operate it with no assistance.

Protection by Law

I mentioned earlier that recruiting and using children as child soldiers is illegal by international laws, and it is helpful to point out which laws I am referring to.

Recruitment, Abduction and ‘Voluntary’ Enlistment

Every child soldier has a different story as to how they first became involved in an armed group. Some children are abducted, forcibly recruited, or simply given very limited alternatives, which force them to “volunteer”.

When a child ‘willingly’ enlists themselves it could be for a multitude of reasons: poverty, being separated from their family, being displaced from their communities, exposure to violence at an early age simply by living in areas prone to armed conflict. All in all, children who volunteer themselves more often that not do so due to severely restricted social and economic opportunities (e.g. lack of schools or adequate employment). Sometimes the promises of security and provision within an armed group is just too much for a child to pass up.

Girl Child Soldier

The Effect on Girls

Sadly girls aren’t safe from becoming child soldiers. In fact, there is often a greater risk of girls being recruited than boys since girls can fulfill a multitude of roles that keep a military functioning smoothly.

As expected, girls are commonly used as domestic labourers (e.g. cooks, nurses, porters), but on top of this they take on active roles in combat situations and are said to make great fighters. Boy soldiers are not completely safe from the threat of sexual abuse, but the risk of girls being used as sexual slaves by commanders and given to them as wives is significantly higher. Current statistics show that 40% of all child soldiers are girls, and in some countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uganda, a third or more of the child soldiers are reported to be girls.

Do Children Really Make Good Soldiers?

In Canada, where I am from, becoming a part of our national armed forces requires a certain degree of professionalism, expertise and training. This is not the case in many of the countries where children are recruited and used. Kids offer a completely different set of qualifications that make them marvelous counterparts during conflict:

    • Vulnerable to recruitment because of their emotional and physical immaturity
    • Easily manipulated/indoctrinated
    • Willingness to obey
    • Fearless in combat – with the help of drugs
    • Easy to sustain – don’t require as much food, clothing, drugs, or provisions as adults
    • Less likely to deflect from an army or fight back
    • They form strong attachments to groups for which they fight

The Way Out

When a child is either released from an armed group or is lucky enough to escape on their own, they can find help in rehabilitation programs known as DDR/DDRR programs. These programs are mostly organized by either NGO’s or the UN and they help kids locate their families, get back into school, receive vocational training, and re-enter civilian life.

Returning to normal life after being a part of an armed group is not easy, and children often face rejection from their families and communities when they return home. As a result, the successful DDRR programs much focus as much attention on preparing the community as they do in preparing the child.

Although DDR/DDRR programs exist, they are perpetually inadequate to deal with the abundance of children who need assistance, and in a failing economy, children run the risk of re-recruitment if they are not able to find a way to support themselves.


I first learned about this issue in my final year of university, and it plagued me to know that these atrocities occur under the full knowledge of the international community. How can we as citizens know that so many children around the world are being abused in this way and not do something about it. There are great organizations that are doing work on this topic, and I invite you to read further and get involved in helping to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers.


Child Soliders International
Zero Under 18
Romeo Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative
War Child
Amnesty International
Office of the SRSG On Children and Armed Conflict