Children in the military

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A Chinese Nationalist soldier, age 10, member of a Chinese division from the X Force, boarding planes in Burma bound for China, May 1944.

Children in the military are children (defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child as persons under the age of 18) who are associated with military organizations, such as state armed forces and non-state armed groups.[1]

Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been involved in military campaigns.[2] For example, thousands of children participated on all sides of the First World War and Second World War.[3][4][5][6]

Children may be trained and used for combat, assigned to support roles such as porters or messengers, or used for tactical advantage as human shields or for political advantage in propaganda.[1][7]

Children are easy targets for military recruitment due to their greater susceptibility to influence compared to adults.[8][9][2][10] Some children are recruited by force while others choose to join up, often to escape poverty or because they expect military life to offer a rite of passage to maturity.[2][11][12] For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the choices facing children are often “to the military, become a street child, or die” while similar situations face children throughout the world, with cited instances in Colombia and Sri Lanka.[13]

The international community began to acknowledge the scale and impact of the military use of children in the 1990s, after a major United Nations report revealed that thousands of children each year reported feeling traumatized and were seriously injured, raped or killed due to their association with state armed forces and non-state armed groups.[14] More recently, academic research has found that military life, even before recruits are sent to war, has a psychological impact, including an elevated risk of mental health problems,[15][16][17] alcohol misuse,[18][19] and violent behavior.[20][21][22]

A number of treaties have tried to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts. According to Child Soldiers International, these agreements have helped to reduce child recruitment,[23] but the practice remains widespread and children continue to participate in hostilities around the world.[24][25] Some powerful nations continue to rely on military recruits aged 16 or 17, and the use of younger children in armed conflict has surged in recent years as militant Islamist movements and the groups fighting them continued recruiting children in large numbers.[26]


Current situation

State armed forces

Since the adoption in 2000 of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), the global trend has been towards restricting armed forces recruitment to adults over the age of 18 (called the Straight-18 standard), according to Child Soldiers International.[23][27] Most states with armed forces have opted in to OPAC, which also prohibits states that still recruit children from using them in armed conflict.[27]

Nonetheless, Child Soldiers International reported in 2017 that children under the age of 18 were still being recruited and trained for military purposes in 29 percent of countries; of these states, most were recruiting from age 17, fewer than 20 were recruiting from age 16, and an unknown, smaller number were recruiting younger children.[23][24][28] States that still rely on children to staff their armed forces include the world's three most populous countries (China, India, and the United States) and the most economically powerful (all G7 countries apart from Italy and Japan).[24]

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and others have called for an end to the recruitment of children by state armed forces, arguing that military training, the military environment, and a binding contract of service are not compatible with children's rights and jeopardize healthy development during adolescence.[29][24][30][31]

Non-state armed groups

These include non-state armed groups using children such guerrilla movements, paramilitary organizations, ideologically or religiously-driven groups, armed people's movements, and many other types of military or quasi-military organization. In 2017 the United Nations identified 14 countries where children were widely used by such groups: Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.[26]

Not all armed groups use children and approximately 60 have entered agreements to reduce or end the practice since 1999, according to Child Soldiers International.[25] For example, by 2017, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines had released nearly 2,000 children from its ranks,[32] and in 2016, the FARC-EP guerrilla movement in Colombia agreed to stop recruiting children.[26] Other countries have seen the reverse trend, particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria, where Islamist militants and groups opposing them have intensified their recruitment, training, and use of children.[26]

Global estimate

In 2003, P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution estimated that child soldiers participate in about three-quarters of ongoing conflicts.[33] In the same year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated that most of these children were aged over 15, although some were younger.[34]

Today, due to the widespread military use of children in areas where armed conflict and insecurity prevent access by UN officials and other third parties, it is difficult to estimate how many children are affected.[35] As of 2017 Child Soldiers International estimated the total number of children in state- and non-state military organizations around the world to be many tens of thousands, and possibly more than 100,000.[35]

Rationale for the use of children

Despite children's physical and psychological underdevelopment relative to adults, there are many reasons why state- and non-state military organizations seek them out to join their ranks. Cited examples include:

  • Peter Singer has suggested that the global proliferation of light automatic weapons, which children can easily handle, has made the use of children as direct combatants more viable.[36]
  • Roméo Dallaire has pointed to the role of overpopulation in making children a cheap and accessible resource for military organizations.[37]
  • Roger Rosenblatt has suggested that children are more willing than adults to fight for non-monetary incentives such as honor, prestige, revenge and duty.[38]
  • Several commentators, including Bernd Beber, Christopher Blattman, Dave Grossman, Michael Wessels, and McGurk and colleagues, have argued that since children are more obedient and malleable than adults, they are easier to control, deceive and indoctrinate.[8][9][2][10]
  • David Gee and Rachel Taylor have found that in the UK, the army finds it easier to attract child recruits starting from age 16 than adults from age 18.[12]
  • Some leaders of armed groups have claimed that children, despite their underdevelopment, bring their own qualities as combatants to a fighting unit, being often remarkably fearless, agile and hardy.[39]

While some children are forcibly recruited, deceived, or bribed into joining military organizations, others join of their own volition.[11][40][2] There are many reasons for this. In a 2004 study of children in military organizations around the world, Rachel Brett and Irma Specht pointed to a complex of factors that incentivize enlisting, particularly:

  • Background poverty including a lack of civilian education or employment opportunities;
  • The cultural normalization of war;
  • Seeking new friends;
  • Revenge (for example, after seeing friends and relatives killed); and
  • Expectations that a "warrior" role provides a rite of passage to maturity.[11]

Impact on children

The scale of the impact on children was first acknowledged by the international community in a major report commissioned by the UN General Assembly. It was produced by the human rights expert Graça Machel, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (1996).[14] The report was particularly concerned with the use of younger children. Participants in armed conflict presented evidence that many thousands of children were being killed, maimed, and psychiatrically injured around the world every year.[14]

Since the Machel Report, further research has shown that child recruits who survive armed conflict face a markedly elevated risk of debilitating psychiatric illness, poor literacy and numeracy, and behavioral problems.[41] Research in Palestine and Uganda, for example, has found that more than half of former child soldiers showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and nearly nine in ten in Uganda screened positive for depressed mood.[41] Researchers in Palestine also found that children exposed to high levels of violence in armed conflict were substantially more likely than other children to exhibit aggression and anti-social behavior.[41] The combined impact of these effects typically includes a high risk of poverty and lasting unemployment in adulthood.[41]

Other research has found that the enlistment of children, including older children, has a detrimental impact even when they are not used in armed conflict until they reach adulthood. Military academics in the US have characterised military training (at all ages) as "intense indoctrination" in conditions of sustained stress, the primary purpose of which is to establish the unconditional and immediate obedience of recruits.[10] The academic literature has found that enlistment, even before recruits are sent to war, is accompanied by a higher risk of attempted suicide in the US,[17] higher risk of mental disorders in the US and the UK,[15][16] higher risk of alcohol misuse[18][19] and higher risk of violent behavior,[20][21][22] relative to recruits' pre-enlistment background. Military settings are also characterised by elevated rates of bullying and sexual harassment.[42][43][44]

Military recruitment practices have also been found to exploit the vulnerabilities of children in mid-adolescence. Specifically, evidence from Germany,[45] the UK[46][47][12] and the US[48][49][50] has shown that recruiters disproportionately target children from poorer backgrounds using marketing that omits the risks and restrictions of military life. Some academics have argued that marketing of this kind capitalises on the psychological susceptibility in mid-adolescence to emotionally-driven decision-making.[51][52][53]

International law

Recruitment and use of children

Definition of child

The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any person under the age of 18.

The Paris Principles, define a child associated with an armed force or group as:

"...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. The document is approved by the United Nations General Assembly. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities."[54]

Children aged under 15

The Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (1977, Art. 77.2),[55] the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) all forbid state armed forces and non-state armed groups from using children under the age of 15 directly in armed conflict (technically "hostilities"), which is now recognised as a war crime.

Children aged under 18

Most states with armed forces are also bound by the higher standards of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) (2000) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999), which forbid the compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18.[27][56] OPAC also requires governments that still recruit children (from age 16) to "take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities".

In addition, OPAC forbids non-state armed groups from recruiting children under any circumstances, although the legal force of this is uncertain.[57][25]

The highest standard in the world is set by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child,[58] which forbids state armed forces from recruiting children under the age of 18 under any circumstances. Most African states have ratified the Charter.[58]

Limitations and loopholes

States that are not a party to OPAC are subject to the lower standards set by Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which allows armed forces to use children over the age of fifteen in hostilities, and possibly to use younger children who have volunteered as spotters, observers, and message-carriers:[59]

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to give priority to those who are oldest.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had proposed that the Parties to the conflict should "take all necessary measures", which became in the final text, "take all feasible measures", which is not a total prohibition because feasible is understood as meaning "capable of being done, accomplished or carried out, possible or practicable".[59] During the negotiations over the clause "take a part in hostilities" the word "direct" was added to it, opening up the possibility that child volunteers could be involved indirectly in hostilities, such as by gathering and transmitting military information, helping in the transportation of arms and munitions, provision of supplies, etc.[59]

However, Article 4.3.c of Protocol II, additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, adopted in 1977, states "children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups nor allowed to take part in hostilities".

Standards for the release and reintegration of children

OPAC requires governments to demobilize children within their jurisdiction who have been recruited or used in hostilities and to provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration.[60] Under war, civil unrest, armed conflict and other emergency situations, children and youths are also offered protection under the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict. To accommodate the proper disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former members of armed groups, the United Nations started the Integrated DDR Standards in 2006.[61]

War crimes

Opinion is currently divided over whether children should be prosecuted for war crimes.[62]

International law does not prohibit the prosecution of children who commit war crimes, but Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child limits the punishment that a child can receive:

Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.[62]

Example: Sierra Leone

In the wake of the Sierra Leone Civil War, the UN sanctioned the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to try former combatants aged 15 and older for breaches of humanitarian law, including war crimes. However, the Paris Principles state that children who participate in armed conflict should be regarded first as victims, even if they may also be perpetrators:

... [those] who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offenses against international law; not only as perpetrators. They must be treated by international law in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, consistent with international law which offers children special protection through numerous agreements and principles.[63]

Indeed, this principle was reflected in the SCSL statute, which did not rule out prosecution but emphasized the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers. David Crane, as the first Chief Prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal, interpreted the statute in favor of prosecuting those who had recruited children, rather than the children themselves, no matter how heinous the crimes they had committed.[62]

Example: Omar Khadr

In the USA, prosecutors charged Omar Khadr for offenses they allege he committed in Afghanistan while under the age of 16 and fighting for the Taliban against US forces.[citation needed] Such a crime carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under US law.[62] In 2010, while under torture and duress, Khadr pleaded guilty to murder in violation of the laws of war, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, two counts of providing material support for terrorism, and spying.[64][65] The plea was offered as part of a plea bargain, which would see Khadr deported to Canada after one year of imprisonment to serve seven further years there.[66] Omar Khadr remained in Guantanamo Bay and the Canadian government faced international criticism for delaying his repatriation.[67] Khadr was eventually transferred to the Canadian prison system in September 2012 and was freed on bail by a judge in Alberta in May 2015. As of 2016, Khadr was appealing his US conviction as a war criminal.[68]

Before sentencing, the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict wrote to the US military commission at Guantanamo appealing unsuccessfully for Khadr's release into a rehabilitation program.[69] In her letter, she said that Khadr represented the "classic child soldier narrative: recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand".[citation needed]

Example: Democratic Republic of the Congo

In March 2012 Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was convicted by the International Criminal Court for the military use of children.[70]

The Role of the United Nations


Children's rights advocates were left frustrated after the final text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) did not prohibit the military recruitment of all children under the age of 18, and they began to advocate for a new treaty to achieve this goal.[71][72] As a consequence, the newly formed Committee on the Rights of the Child made two recommendations: first, to request a major UN study into the impact of armed conflict on children; and second, to establish a working group of the UN Commission on Human Rights to negotiate a supplementary protocol to the Convention.[72] Both proposals were accepted.[71][72]

Responding to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN General Assembly acknowledged "the grievous deterioration in the situation of children in many parts of the world as a result of armed conflicts" and commissioned the human rights expert Graça Machel to conduct a major fact-finding study.[73] The Machel Report, Impact of armed conflict on children, was published in 1996.[14] As noted above, the report was particularly concerned with the use of younger children in armed conflict, presenting evidence that many thousands of children were being killed, maimed, and psychiatrically injured around the world every year. It also noted: "Clearly one of the most urgent priorities is to remove everyone under 18 years of age from armed forces."[14]

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Human Rights established a working group to negotiate a treaty to raise standards with regard to the use of children for military purposes.[71][72] After complex negotiations and a global campaign, the new treaty was agreed in 2000 as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.[71] The treaty prohibits the direct participation of children in armed conflict, but not their recruitment by state armed forces from age 16.

Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

The Machel Report led to a new mandate for a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC).[73] Among the tasks of the SRSG is to draft the Secretary-General's annual report on children and armed conflict, which lists and describes the worst situations of child recruitment and use from around the world.

Security Council

The United Nations Security Council convenes regularly to debate, receive reports, and pass resolutions under the heading "Children in armed conflict". The first resolution on the issue, Resolution 1261, was passed in 1999 (it did not contain references to any earlier resolutions).[74] In a resolution in 2005[75] the Security Council requested that the action plan[76][77] for establishing a monitoring, reporting and compliance mechanism produced by the Secretary-General be implemented without delay.

United Nations Secretary-General

The Secretary-General publishes an annual report on children and armed conflict,[78] The 2017 report identified 14 countries where children were widely used by armed groups during 2016 (Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) and six countries where state armed forces were using children in hostilities (Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Syria).[26]

In 2011, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the issue of children in conflict areas, who are under threat, and involved in violent activities according to the "Extreme Measures" report. In 2014, more than 17 cases of children in armed conflict were reported. Many children in different countries are involved in such illegal conflicts. These children are often detained with no real evidence, or in massive sweeps. Some of them are captured with their families, or by the activity of one of their family members. Lawyers and relatives are frequently banned from any court hearing. They can be detained without sufficient food, medical care, or under other inhumane conditions. Some of these children experience with physical and sexual torture.[79]

Children in the military—by region and country

"Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast", Gilbert G. Groud, 2007


In 2003, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that up to half of children involved with state armed forces and non-state armed groups worldwide were in Africa.[34] In 2004, Child Soldiers International estimated that 100,000 children were being used in state and non-state armed forces on the continent;[80] and in 2008 an estimate put the total at 120,000 children, or 40 percent of the global total.[81]

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), which has been ratified by most African states, prohibits all military recruitment of children aged under 18. Nonetheless, according to the UN, in 2016 children were being used by armed groups in seven African countries (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan) and by state armed forces in three (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan).[26]

International efforts to stem and reduce the number of children drawn into military organizations in Africa began with the Cape Town Principles and Best Practices, developed in 1997.[82] The Principles proposed that African governments commit to the Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was being negotiated at the time, and raise the minimum age for military recruitment from 15 to 18.[82] The Principles also defined a child soldier to include any person under the age of 18 who is "part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or group in any capacity... including girls recruited for sexual purposes..."[82]

In 2007, the Free Children from War Conference in Paris produced the Paris Principles, which refined and updated the Cape Town Principles, applied them globally, and outlined a practical approach to preventing the use of child soldiers reintegrating current child soldiers.[83]

Children of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia


Children were recruited and used extensively during the civil war of 1993–2005.[84] In 2004 hundreds of child soldiers were in the Forces Nationales pour la Libération (FNL), an armed rebel Hutu group.[80] Children between the ages of 10 and 16 were also conscripted by the Burundese military.[80]

After the Arusha peace accord of 2001 and the Pretoria agreement of 2003 eventually brought the conflict to an end in 2005,[85] the new constitution committed to not use children in direct combat.[84] The parties to the conflict no longer recruited children in large numbers, but many remained active in the FNL, which had denounced the peace accord.[84]

By 2006, a reintegration program organized by UNICEF had led to the release of 3,000 children from the military and armed groups.[84] According to Child Soldiers International:

The majority of those [children] who took part in the program returned to farm and fish in their local communities, but nearly 600 returned to school. Some 1,800 former child soldiers received occupational training. Health care was provided for those with special needs and psychosocial support was provided through individual and group meetings.[84]

As of 2017, Burundi did not appear on the UN list of countries where children are used in hostilities.[26]

Central African Republic

The use of children by armed groups in Central African Republic has historically been common.[80] Between 2012 and 2015, as many as 10,000 children were used by armed groups in the nationwide armed conflict, and as of 2016 the children were still being used.[86][26]

The mainly Muslim “Séléka” coalition of armed groups and the predominantly Christian, "Anti-Balaka" militias have both used children in this way; some are as young as eight, according to Child Soldiers International.[87]

In May 2015, at the Forum de Bangui (a meeting of government, parliament, armed groups, civil society and religious leaders), a number of armed groups agreed to release thousands of children.[88]

In 2016, a measure of stability returned to the Central African Republic and, according to the United Nations, 2,691 boys and 1,206 girls were officially separated from armed groups.[26] Despite this, the recruitment and use of children for military purposes increased by approximately 50 percent over that year, mostly attributed to the Lord's Resistance Army.[26]


Child soldiers are fighting with the Chadian Military, integrated rebel forces – the United Front for Democratic Change (Front Uni pour le Changement, FUC), local self-defense forces known as Tora Boro militias, and two Sudanese rebel movements operating in Chad – the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the G-19 faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).[89][90]

Côte d'Ivoire

During the 2002 civil war, "children were recruited, often forcibly, by both sides."[80]

A group of demobilized child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Thousands of children serve in the military of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the various rebel militias. At the height of the Second Congo War, it has been estimated that more than 30,000 children were fighting with various parties to the conflict. It was claimed that the Lord's Resistance Army recruited this number in the film Kony 2012.[91]

Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the highest proportions of child soldiers all over the world. The international court has taken part in the judgment of these practices during the war. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, one of the warlords in the DRC has been sentenced to 14 years in prison because of the recruiting of child soldiers between 2002 and 2003.[92] Lubanga directed the Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. The children were forced to fight in the armed conflict of Ituri, located in the north-east of the country, a place with a high amount of mineral resources. This trial is the first of this kind and could set precedent legislation against these violations of human rights.[citation needed]


All sides in the Second Liberian Civil War made use of child soldiers as a means of increasing their strength.[citation needed]


In 2002, child soldiers were used by Rwandan government forces and paramilitaries, operating within the Democratic Republic of Congo.[80]

Sierra Leone

In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism anthropologist David M. Rosen discusses the murders, rapes, tortures, and the thousands of amputations committed by the Small Boys Unit of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) during Sierra Leone's civil war (1991–2001.)[93] Another book describing the civil war is A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. It described the civil war from the view of Ishmael when he was forced to be a soldier. In popular culture, movies like Blood Diamond are set at the backdrop of the civil war in Sierra Leone.


A report published by the Child Soldiers International in 2004 estimated that since 1991, 200,000 children carried arms or had been recruited in the country's militias against their will.[80] As of 2012, there have been no reported children under the age of 16 in Somalia actively in the military, as the constitution states that such practices are illegal.

South Africa

During the Second Boer War (1899–1902) children were used both as scouts and as despatch carriers by the British to move through the lines of Boer fighters besieging the town of Mafikeng. This gave rise to the establishment of the Scout movement by Robert Baden-Powell, a lieutenant general in the British Army, in 1907.[citation needed]


A child soldier of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (2007).

"In March 2004, there were an estimated 17,000 children in government forces, allied militias and opposition armed groups in the north, east and south. Between 2,500 and 5,000 children served in the armed opposition group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), in the south. Despite a widely publicized child demobilization program, in which it claimed to have demobilized over 16,000 children between 2001 and 2004, the SPLA continued to recruit and re-recruit child soldiers."[80] In 2003 it was reported that armed groups were active in government armed forces, Janjaweed militias, and opposition groups.[80] Some former child soldiers were sentenced to death for crimes committed while they were soldiers.[80]


Over the past twenty years, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army has abducted more than 30,000 boys and girls as soldiers. Attacks against Uganda's Acholi people have resulted in severe trauma to civilians from extreme violence and abduction. Girls are often forced to be sex slaves.[94] The Uganda People's Defence Force has recruited small numbers of children into its forces as young as 13, including Local Defense Units.[citation needed] On 22 April 2004, UN Resolution 1539 was put in place by the Security Council.

Nicola Ansell, the author of "Children, Youth, and Development," explains that each child is affected in different ways, often worse than what adults experience. Traditionally societies have aimed to protect the child in war. In Uganda, the Acholi people would avoid attacking children to facilitate post-conflict reconciliation.[95]


The ZANU-PF government of Robert Mugabe sponsors a "youth militia"—the National Youth Service, members aged between 10–30 are known as the "Green Bombers".[citation needed]



The government of Bolivia has acknowledged that children as young as 14 may have been forcibly conscripted into the armed forces during recruitment sweeps.[96] About 40% of the Bolivian army is believed to be under the age of 18, with half of those below the age of 16.[96]


In Canada, people may join the reserve component of the Canadian Forces at age 16 with parental permission, and the regular component at 17 years of age, also with parental permission. They may not volunteer for a tour of duty until reaching age 18.[97]


The Colombian armed conflict, from the mid-1960s to present, has heavily involved the use of child soldiers. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, one fourth of non-state combatants are under 18 years old and in 2004, Colombia ranked fourth for the highest use of child soldiers in the world, and there are currently 11,000–14,000 children in armed groups in the country; in negotiations with the government, armed groups offer to stop the recruitment of minors as a bargaining chip, but they have not honored these offers.[98][99] Bjørkhaug argues that most child soldiers were recruited through some combination of voluntary participation and coercion.[100]

In 1998, a Human Rights Watch press release indicated that 30 percent of some guerrilla units were made up of children and up to 85 percent of some of the militias, which are considered to serve as a "training ground for future guerrilla fighters.", had child soldiers[101] In the same press release, Human Rights Watch also estimated that some of the government-linked paramilitary units contained up to 50 percent of children, including some as young as 8 years old.[102][101]

In 2005, an estimated 11,000 children were involved with left-wing guerrillas or right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia according to Human Rights Watch and "approximately 80 percent of child combatants in Colombia belong to one of the two left-wing guerrilla groups, the FARC or ELN. The remainder fight in paramilitary ranks, predominately the AUC."[103] According to P. W. Singer, the FARC attack upon the Guatape hydroelectric facility in 1998 had allegedly involved militants as young as eight years old and a 2001 FARC training video depicted boys as young as 11 working with missiles.[citation needed] The group has also taken in children from Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador.[102]

In 2008, the Child Soldiers International reported that the Colombian government's security forces did not officially recruit children.[citation needed] The legal age for both compulsory and voluntary recruitment has been set at 18. However, students were allowed to enroll as cadets in military secondary schools and 16- or 17-year-olds could enter air force or national army training programs, respectively.[citation needed] In addition, captured enemy child combatants were employed by the Colombian military for intelligence gathering purposes in potential violation of legal prohibitions.[104]

The demobilization efforts targeted toward the FARC in 2016–2017 have provided hope that the conflict will come to an end, limiting the number of children involved in violence; however, other armed groups have yet to be demobilized, and conflict is not yet resolved.[105]


In Cuba, compulsory military service for both boys and girls starts at age 17;[106] male teenagers are allowed to join the Territorial Troops Militia prior to their compulsory service.

El Salvador

Rebel Salvadoran soldier boy combatant in Perquin, El Salvador 1990, during the Salvadoran Civil War.

During the Salvadoran Civil War, both the military and the guerillas recruited and kidnapped children and trained them to be child soldiers. The crimes make El Salvador the second Latin American country proven to engage in such child abductions during internal Cold War-era conflicts. No one has revealed the full scope of the child abductions in El Salvador. The number of confirmed abductions will likely rise if the country's Defense Department makes public files from the civil war saga era. These former Salvadoran child soldiers were the principal founders of the maras that formed in Los Angeles, which today torment the Central American isthmus and most of the North America continent. Their ages ranged from 12 to 15.


In Haiti an unknown number of children participate in various loosely organized armed groups that are engaged in political violence.[107]

United States

In the United States 17-year-olds may join the armed forces, but may not be stationed outside the continental US or deployed in combat situations. The United States military is based on voluntary recruitment, though minors also must have parental permission to enlist (or permission from a legal guardian in the absence of parents) unless emancipated as adults in which case no consent other than the individual wishing to enlist is required. Males under eighteen years of age are not draft eligible, and females are not eligible for conscription at any age. The United States military requires all service members to possess a high school diploma or equivalent prior to attending initial entry training; this requirement may be waived for young service members for up to 180 days from the date of enlistment (with the agreement that the child obtains a high school diploma or equivalent within 180 days) during wartime.[citation needed]

In 2004 the Director of Military Personnel Policy for the US Army acknowledged in a letter to Human Rights Watch that nearly sixty 17-year-old US soldiers had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004.[108] The Department of Defense subsequently stated that "the situations were immediately rectified and action is taken to prevent recurrence." [109]

On 3 October 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) federal statute into law.[110][111] The law criminalizes leading a military force which recruits child soldiers. The law's definition of child soldiers includes "any person under 18 years of age who takes a direct part in hostilities as a member of governmental armed forces."

President Barack Obama announced he was waiving the Child Soldiers Protection Act ban on aid to nations that use child soldiers.[112]

Middle East


Military cadets, NCO trainees and technical personnel can enlist in the Bahrain Defence Force from the age of 15.[113]


An Iranian child soldier after the Liberation of Khorramshahr

Iranian law prohibits the recruitment of those under 16,[114] basing itself on the Koranic traditions about war.[102] During the Iran–Iraq War, children had been drafted to the voluntary army of Basij. While never proven, Iranian government has been accused of using children in battles. According to critics of Iranian government, "children were sent to the front as waves of human shields".[115][116] Christopher Hitchens claimed that Iranians "lost maybe a million and a half of their kids that way", while also clearing barbed wire and taking machine gun fire[117] (however, the total number of all Iranian casualties is estimated by independent sources to be about 200,000–600,000).[118][119][120][121][122][123][124][125][126] They[who?] have reported that the state conscripts for the regular army at age 19 while accepting volunteers at age 16, and those at 17 can work for the police.[114]

There were Iranian children who left school and participated in the Iran–Iraq War without the knowledge of their parents, including one Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh.

One source estimates 3% of the Iran–Iraq War's casualties were under the age of 14.[127]


Saddam Hussein's regime maintained 'boot camps' of civilian youths between the ages of 12 and 17 that involved small arms training and Ba'athist political indoctrination according to Child Soldiers International. Iraqi opposition sources and the U.S. State Department reported that children who refused faced punishment. Furthermore, the state incorporated children as young as ten into the Futuwah and Ashbal Saddam youth movements and then subjected them to military training, sometimes for 14 hours a day.[128] P. W. Singer has compared the groups to the Hitler Jugend.[33] In the Gulf War, 12-year-old boys fought for the Iraqi side with Kalashnikovs. Children also participated in the Iran–Iraq War.[128]

American forces fought children at Nasariya, Karbala, and Kirkuk in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[102] A January 2009 UN report on the post-war Iraqi occupation stated that the Iraqi insurgency has used children as combatants. The report noted, for example, a suicide bombing attack by a boy between 10 and 13 years old against Kirkuk's police commander. called the findings "disturbing".[129] Coalition forces have been forced to take child insurgents as captives, which has led to a moral dilemma. The U.S. has shipped many of them into Abu Ghraib prison.[102]

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Jihad Shomaly, in a report entitled Use of Children in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, published in 2004 for the Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, concludes the report by stating that a handful of children perceive martyrdom a way to strike a blow against those they hold responsible for their hopeless situation, and that they have been recruited by Palestinian paramilitary groups to carry out armed attacks. However, Shomaly goes onto state that there is no systematic recruitment and that senior representatives of the groups and the Palestinian community are against the recruitment of children as a political strategy, although in Shomaly's opinion the political leadership of the Palestinians could do more to discourage the use of children by paramilitaries by requesting that the leadership of the paramilitaries sign a memorandum forbidding the training and recruitment of children. Hamas, the Palestinian organization governing the Gaza strip, has been known to induce controversial ideologies upon child soldiers such as inciting violence against Israeli occupation forces within their controlled territory.

William O'Brien, a professor of Georgetown University, wrote about active participation of Palestinian children in the First Intifada: "It appears that a substantial number, if not the majority, of troops of the intifada are young people, including elementary schoolchildren. They are engaged in throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and other forms of violence."[130] Arab journalist Huda Al-Hussein wrote in a London Arab newspaper on 27 October 2000: "While UN organizations save child-soldiers, especially in Africa, from the control of militia leaders who hurl them into the furnace of gang-fighting, some Palestinian leaders… consciously issue orders for the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath."[131]

In 2002, the Child Soldiers International said "while there are reports of children participating in hostilities, there is no evidence of systematic recruitment by armed groups [in the Occupied Territories]",[132] with less than 1% of Palestinian adolescents having played an active role in clashes with Israeli troops.[133] According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (now Child Soldiers International) 2004 Global Report, there were at least nine documented suicide attacks involving Palestinian minors between October 2000 and March 2004:[134] but also stated, "There was no evidence of systematic recruitment of children by Palestinian armed groups. However, children are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All the main political groups involve children in this way, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine."[135] In May 2008, a Child Soldiers International report highlighted Hamas and Islamic Jihad for having "used children in military attacks and training" in its Iranian section.[114]

On 23 May 2005, Amnesty International reiterated its calls to Palestinian armed groups to put an immediate end to the use of children in armed activities: "Palestinian armed groups must not use children under any circumstances to carry out armed attacks or to transport weapons or other material."[136]

In October 2010 an Israeli military tribunal convicted two Israel Defense Forces soldiers of using an 11-year-old Palestinian child as a human shield during Operation Cast Lead, by forcing him to search bags in his house for explosive devices.[137]


Claims were made that the PKK had 3,000 child soldiers in 1998, and that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had also recruited children.[138]

In 2001, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (now Child Soldiers International) claimed that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) had systemically recruited children. The organization had referred to one report, in which it was claimed that the PKK had formed a battalion especially for this purpose, called Tabura Zaroken Sehit Agit.

Throughout the Syrian Civil War multiple media outlets including Human Rights Watch have found evidence that the PKK-aligned Rojava has been recruiting and deploying child soldiers. Despite a claim by the group that it would stop using children, as this is a violation of international law, there is no evidence that it has done so.[139][140][141]


Many different sides in the Lebanese Civil War used child soldiers. The practice essentially ended after the peace from 1990 onwards, but factions have made allegations against each other about it since then.[142] A May 2008 Child Soldiers International report stated that Hezbollah trains children for military services.[114] In April 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused several factions of the practice. However, a Human Rights Watch representative told The Daily Star that they have not documented any systemic military use of children by anyone.[142]

Mandatory Palestine

Historically, In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism anthropologist David M. Rosen discusses the creation of troops of boys aged twelve and up, modelled on the Hitler Youth, and armed by the Arab Nazi party in Palestine and that carried out military attacks as part of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine.[143] Yassir Arafat grew up in this era and later claimed to be both a child soldier and an organizer of other youth, emerging as a militant political leader by age ten. However, there are few reliable historical records supporting this.[144]


Symbolic Syrian boy soldiers, fans of SAA

During the ongoing Syrian Civil War, children have joined the opposition against Bashar al Assad. In 2012, the UN received allegations of rebels using child soldiers, but said they were unable to verify these.[145] In June 2014, a United Nations report said that the opposition had recruited children in military and support roles; while there seemed to be no policy of doing so, the report said, there were no age verification procedures.[146] Human Rights Watch reported in 2014 that rebel factions have been using children in support and combatant roles, ranging treating the wounded on battlefields, ferrying ammunition and other supplies to frontlines while fighting raged, to acting as snipers.[147]

Kurdish forces have also been accused of using this tactic: in 2015, Human Rights Watch claimed that 59 children, 10 of them under 15 years old, were recruited by or volunteered for the YPG or YPJ since July 2014 when the Kurdish militia leaders signed a Deed of Commitment with the Geneva Call.[148]

President Assad passed a law in 2013 prohibiting the use of child soldiers (anyone under 18), the breaking of which is punishable by 10–20 years of 'penal labor.' [149] However, whether or not the law is strictly enforced has not been confirmed, and there have been allegations of children being recruited to fight for the Syrian government against rebel forces.[150][147]


U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy stated in January 2010 that "large numbers" of teenage boys are being recruited in Yemeni tribal fighting. NGO activist Abdul-Rahman al-Marwani has estimated that as many as 500–600 children are either killed or wounded through tribal combat every year in Yemen.[151]

Asia and Oceania

Photos of young Khmer Rouge fighters

In 2004, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (now Child Soldiers International) reported that in Asia thousands of children are involved in fighting forces in active conflict and ceasefire situations in Afghanistan, Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka, although government refusal of access to conflict zones has made it impossible to document the numbers involved.[152] In 2004, Burma was unique in the region as the only country where government armed forces forcibly recruited and used children between the ages of 12 and 16.[152] Johnny and Luther Htoo, twin brothers who jointly led the God's Army guerrilla group, were estimated to have been around ten years old when they began leading the group in 1997.[citation needed]


The Australian Defence Force allows personnel to enlist with parental consent from the age of 17. However, personnel under the age of 18 cannot be deployed overseas or used in direct combat except in extreme circumstances where it is not possible to evacuate them.[153]


Militias recruited thousands of child soldiers during the Afghan civil war during three decades. Many would still be fighting now, for the Taliban. Some of those taken from Islamic religious schools, or madrassas, are used as suicide bombers and gunmen. A propaganda video of boys marching in camouflage uniform and using slogans of martyrdom was issued in 2009 by the Afghan Taliban's leadership in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura, including a eulogy to a 14-year-old Taliban fighter who allegedly killed an American soldier.[154]


State Peace and Development Council has asserted that the government has stated that all of its soldiers volunteered and that all of those accepted are 18 or over. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 70,000 boys serve in Burma/Myanmar's national army, the Tatmadaw, with children as young as 11 forcibly recruited off the streets. Desertion, the group reported, leads to punishment by three to five years in prison or even execution in some cases. The group has also stated that about 5,000–7,000 children serve with a range of different armed ethnic opposition groups, most notably in the United Wa State Army.[155] U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report in June 2009 mentioning "grave violations" against children in the country by both the rebels and the government. The administration announced on 4 August that they would send a team into Burma/Myanmar to press for more action.[156]


In India, volunteers can join the Navy from the age of 16 and a half, and the Air Force from the age of 17. These soldiers are not deployed until after training by which time they are 18 years or older.[157]


An estimated 6,000–9,000 children serve in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) forces. Although a peace agreement is in place, the Maoists have not yet demobilized children from their ranks.[158]

The Philippines

Children are recruited by rebel forces, including the New People's Army, Abu Sayyaf Group, and the Moro National Liberation Front. An estimated 13 percent of the 10,000 soldiers in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are children. Child recruitment is also reported by some paramilitary forces linked to the government.[159] There is a United Nations Security Council Report in 23 April 2010 that says that the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), New People's Army (NPA), and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are among the groups around the world that have subjected minors to the most brutal violence, such as killings, maimings, rapes and other sexual assaults.[citation needed]


A mandatory National Service (NS) requires all male Singaporean citizens and second-generation permanent residents who have reached the age of 18 to enroll in the military. They serve a two-year or one-year-ten-month period as Full Time National Servicemen (NSFs), either in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force (SPF), or the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). Pre-enlistees are subjected to exit control measures policy of limiting the passport validity of boys aged 11 and above, up to their enlistment. To travel, males had to apply to extend for 9 months extensions of the validity of their passports. This policy is, however, done away with recently due to the limitation of the new biometric passport. Exit permits are still required for overseas trips which last longer than three months. The stated objective of such exit control measures is to deter NS-evasion, and to act as a "psychological reminder" of the NS obligations.[citation needed]

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, thousands of children were believed to be in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),[160] a rebel group which fought for their own land. Since signing a ceasefire agreement in 2001, the latest available UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has abducted 5,666 children until July 2006, although the organization speculates that only about a third of such cases are reported to them. Sri Lankan soldiers nicknamed one unit the Baby Battalion, due to the number of children in it.[161] In response to widespread international condemnation of alleged children recruitment practices, the LTTE informed that they have made (taking effect in Oct. 2006) child recruitment illegal for its groups.[160] After the end of the Sri Lankan Civil war, child soldiers are being rehabilitated by the government with aid from UN and International groups.

More recently, the para-military group known as the Karuna Group, which is apparently a splinter group from the LTTE, has been held responsible for the abduction of children according to UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.[162]


According to Child Soldiers International, the trend in Europe has been towards recruiting only adults from age 18;[23] most states only allow adult recruitment,[12] and as of 2016 no armed groups were known to be using children.[31] However, as of 2016 two countries, Belarus and the UK, were enlisting children from age 16, and five were enlisting from age 17 (Austria, Cyprus, France, Germany, and Netherlands).[23] Of these, the UK recruits children in the greatest numbers; in 2016, approximately a quarter of the intake to the British army was aged under 18, for example.[12]

All European states have ratified the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict,[163] and so child recruits are not typically used in hostilities until they reach adulthood.

Children were used as combatants in the First Chechen War during the 1990s.

The brave Righetto (1851). Replica of the Giovanni Strazza statue in the lobby of the grand staircase in Palazzo Litta. It portrays a 12-year-old child who died with his dog in 1849 while trying to stop a bomb during the defense of the Repubblica Romana in 1849.


During the First Chechen War, Chechen separatist forces included a large number of boys and girls, some as young as 11, according to the UN: "Child soldiers in Chechnya were reportedly assigned the same tasks as adult combatants, and served on the front lines soon after joining the armed forces."[164] In 2004, Child Soldiers International reported that in Chechnya, under-18s were still believed to be involved in a range of armed groups in the war against Russia; some allegedly took part in suicide bombings.[165]


Greece allows for the wartime recruitment of teenagers aged 17, if their 18th birthday falls within the same calendar year.[166]


Children as young as 12 participated in the Warsaw Uprising in the Second World War.[167][168] As of 2016, the Polish armed forces only allowed adults from age 18 to enlist.[23]

United Kingdom

Children from age 16 in the British army, on parade at the Army Foundation College, Harrogate, UK

The British armed forces enlist from age 16 and accept applications from children aged 15 years, 7 months.[169] As of 2016, approximately one-quarter of enlistees to the British army were aged under 18.[12] As per the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the UK does not routinely send child recruits to participate directly in hostilities, and it requires recruiters to seek parental consent prior to enlistment.[170] Nonetheless, children's rights bodies have criticised the UK's reliance on children to staff its armed forces.[171][172][173][12]

Although the UK normally prohibits deployment to war zones until recruits turn 18, it does not rule out doing so,[163] and it inadvertently deployed 22 personnel aged under 18 to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2010, according to Child Soldiers International.[174] The Committee on the Rights of the Child has urged the UK to alter its policy so as to ensure that children cannot take part in hostilities under any circumstances.[175]

In negotiations on the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict during the 1990s, the UK joined the US in opposing a global minimum enlistment age of 18.[176]


During the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Justice for Peace at Donbas documented 41 verified individual cases of child recruitment into armed formations.[177] Of those, 37 concerned the participation of children in armed formations on territory not controlled by Ukraine and 4 on territory controlled by Ukraine. There were 31 further reports of child recruitment, which could not be verified. Of the 37 verified cases on territory controlled by Ukraine, 33 were boys and 4 were girls; 57% were aged 16–17, 35% were under 15, and age could not be determined in 8% of cases.

Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

From 1992 to 1995, Serb militias fighting in Bosnia and Croatia used children as young as ten, as did the Bosnian Muslim regular armies.[178][179]

As of 2016, the armed forces of Serbia and of Bosnia both only allowed the military recruitment of adults aged 18 and above.[23]

Movement to end military use of children

2008 poster by Rafaela Tasca and Carlos Latuff

The military use of children has been common throughout history; only in recent decades has the practice met with informed criticism and concerted efforts to end it.[180] Progress has been slow, partly because many armed forces have relied on children to fill their ranks,[23][24][71] and partly because the behavior of non-state armed groups is difficult to influence.[25]

Recent history


International efforts to limit the participation of children in armed conflict began with the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1977 (Art. 77.2).[55] The new Protocols prohibited the military recruitment of children aged under 15, but continued to allow state armed forces and non-state armed groups to recruit children from age 15 and use them in warfare.[59][71]

Efforts were renewed during negotiations on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), when NGOs campaigned for the new treaty to outlaw child recruitment entirely.[71] Some states, whose armed forces relied on recruiting below the age of 18, resisted this, so the final treaty text of 1989 only reflected the existing legal standard: the prohibition of the direct participation of children aged under 15 in hostilities.[71]


In the 1990s, NGOs established the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (now Child Soldiers International) to work with sympathetic governments on a campaign for a new treaty to correct the deficiency they saw in the CRC.[71] After a global campaign lasting six years, the treaty was adopted in 2000 as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC). The treaty prohibits child conscription, ensures that military recruits are no younger than 16, and forbids the use of child recruits in hostilities. The treaty also forbids non-state armed groups from recruiting anyone under the age of 18 for any purpose.

Although most states negotiating OPAC supported a ban on recruiting children, some states, led by the US in alliance with the UK, objected to this.[71][72] As such, the treaty does not ban the recruitment of children aged 16 or 17, although it allows states to bind themselves to a higher standard in law.


Red Hand Day, the International Day Against Use of Child Soldiers, is often marked by displaying red handprints.

After the adoption of the OPAC treaty, a campaign for global ratification made swift progress;[71] as of 2018 OPAC had been ratified by 167 states.[163] The campaign also successfully encouraged many states not to recruit children at all; whereas in 2001, 83 states only allowed adult enlistment, by 2016 this had increased to 126, which is 71 percent of countries with armed forces, according to Child Soldiers International.[23] Approximately 60 non-state armed groups have also entered agreements to stop or scale back their use of children, often brokered by the UN or the NGO Geneva Call.[25]

Child Soldiers International reports that the success of the OPAC treaty, combined with the gradual decline in child recruitment by state armed forces, has led to a reduction of children in military organizations worldwide.[23] However, as of 2018 the recruitment and use of children remains widespread; in particular, militant Islamist organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as armed groups fighting them, have used children extensively.[31] In addition, the three most populous states – China, India and the US – still allow their armed forces to enlist children aged 16 or 17, as do five of the G7 countries: Canada, France, Germany, the UK (and the US).[23]


Red Hand Day (also known as the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers) on 12 February is an annual commemoration day to draw public attention to the practice of using children as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts. The date reflects the entry into force of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

Countering the militarization of childhood

An army sergeant drills high school students at Jackson High School in Georgia, US.

Although fewer states now allow their armed forces to recruit children, they have continued to draw criticism for marketing military life to children through the education system, civic space, and in popular entertainment such as films and videogames.[181] Some commentators have argued that this vigorous marketing to children is manipulative, and part of a military recruitment process, and should therefore be evaluated ethically as such.[47][182] This principle has led some groups to campaign for relations between military organizations and young people to be regulated, on grounds of children's rights and public health.[48][183] Examples are the Countering the Militarization of Youth programme of War Resisters International,[184] the Stop Recruiting Kids campaign in the US,[185] and the Military Out of Schools campaign in the UK.[183] Similar concerns have been raised in Germany and Israel.[186][187]


1800s and earlier

Mexico honors its cadets who died in the battle of Chapultepec (1847).
A powder monkey on a Union vessel, American Civil War.

Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns.

The earliest mentions of minors being involved in wars come from antiquity. It was customary for youths in the Mediterranean basin to serve as aides, charioteers and armor bearers to adult warriors. Examples of this practice can be found in the Bible (such as David's service to King Saul), in Hittite and Egyptian art, and in Greek mythology (such as the story of Hercules and Hylas), philosophy and literature.

Also in a practice dating back to antiquity, children were routinely taken on a campaign, together with the rest of a military man's family, as part of the baggage.

The Romans also made use of youths in war, though it was understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war, and Plutarch implies that regulations required youths to be at least sixteen years of age.

In medieval Europe, young boys from about twelve years of age were used as military aides ("squires"), though in theory, their role in actual combat was limited. The so-called Children's Crusade in 1212 recruited thousands of children as untrained soldiers under the assumption that divine power would enable them to conquer the enemy, although none of the children entered combat; according to the legend, they were instead sold into slavery. While most scholars no longer believe that the Children's Crusade consisted solely, or even mostly, of children, it nonetheless exemplifies an era in which the entire family took part in a war effort.

Young boys often took part in battles during early modern warfare. When Napoleon was faced with invasion by a massive Allied force in 1814, he conscripted many teenagers for his armies. Orphans of the Imperial Guard fought in the Netherlands with Marshal MacDonald and were between the ages of 14 and 17.[188] Many of the conscripts who reported to the ranks in 1814 were referred to as Marie Louises after the Empress Marie Louise of France (they were also known as "The Infants of the Emperor"). These soldiers were in their mid-teens and performed heroic acts under the personal direction of Napoleon, but could not stem the tide of the Allied advance.[189] One of their more visible roles was as the ubiquitous "drummer boy" – the film Waterloo (based on the Battle of Waterloo) depicts French drummer boys leading Napoleon's initial attack, only to be gunned down by Allied soldiers.

During the age of sail, young boys formed part of the crew of British Royal Navy ships and were responsible for many essential tasks including bringing powder and shot from the ship's magazine to the gun crews. These children were called "powder monkeys."

A young boy, Bugler John Cook, served in the U.S. Army at the age of 15 and received the Medal of Honor for his acts during the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.[190] Several other minors, including 11-year-old Willie Johnston, have also received the Medal of Honor.[191]

By a law signed by Nicholas I of Russia in 1827, a disproportionate number of Jewish boys, known as the cantonists, were forced into military training establishments to serve in the army. The 25-year conscription term officially commenced at the age of 18, but boys as young as eight were routinely taken to fulfill the hard quota.[citation needed]

In the final stages of the Paraguayan War, children fought in the Battle of Acosta Ñu against the Allied forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. The day is remembered as a national holiday in Paraguay.

During the Boshin War, the pro-shōgun Aizu Domain formed the Byakkotai (白虎隊, "White Tiger Force"), which is unit made up of young, 16 to 17-year-old sons of Aizu samurai. Along with the Genbutai (玄武隊, "Black Tortoise Force"), Seiryūtai (青竜隊, "Azure Dragon Force"), and Suzakutai (朱雀隊, "Vermilion Bird Force"), the unit was supposed to be a reserve unit. During the Battle of Bonari Pass and Battle of Aizu they fought the Satcho forces who supported the Imperial cause. During the battle, a detached unit of Byakottai was cut off from the rest of the unit and retreated at Iimori Hill, which overlooked Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle. From there, they saw what they thought was the castle on fire. 20 of the detached unit committed seppuku while one was unsuccessful. He was saved by a local peasant.

World War I

Momčilo Gavrić and another soldier reporting to major Stevan Tucović, 1916.

The youngest known soldier of World War I was Momčilo Gavrić, who joined the 6th Artillery Division of the Serbian Army at the age of 8, after Austro-Hungarian troops in August 1914 killed his parents, grandmother, and seven of his siblings.[192][193][194]

In the West, boys as young as 12 were caught up in the overwhelming tide of patriotism and in huge numbers cheerfully enlisted for active service, others enlisted to avoid the harsh and dreary lives they had working in British industry. Many were to serve in the bloodiest battles of the war, such as ex-miner Dick Trafford who took part in the Battle of Loos, and Frank Lindley who, seeking to avenge his dead brother, went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Both were just sixteen. Typically many were able to pass themselves off as older men, such as George Thomas Paget, who at 17 joined a Bantam battalion in the Welsh Regiment. George died of wounds in captivity just five weeks after landing in France. George Mahers who served briefly in France when he was just thirteen years and nine months old. He was sent back to England along with five other under-age boys. The last surviving combat veteran of the War was Claude Choules, who enlisted in the Royal Navy at age 14 and saw his first action at Jutland at 15.

In the Gallipoli campaign, otherwise known as "Çanakkale," children as young as 15 were known to fight in the trenches. Current records state 120 children fighting in the "15'liler" or "The 15s" company, with no known survivors.

Spanish Civil War

Many child soldiers fought in the Spanish Civil War:

World War II

In World War II, children frequently fought in insurrections in both the Allied and Axis forces.

In World War II, the youngest member of the United States Military was 12-year-old Calvin Graham. He lied about his age when he enlisted in the US Navy, and his real age was not known until after he was wounded.[196] The United States Military was not the sole recruiter, albeit unintentionally or intentionally, of underage child soldiers during World War II.

Legality of child soldiers in World War II

The legality relating to the use of children in armed conflicts, as soldiers or in other capacities, has changed significantly in the last century.

Following World War I, in 1924 the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child.[197] Despite this attempt to protect children's rights, stating they must be "protected against every form of exploitation,"[197] the rise of fascism that led to the start of World War II left millions of children again unprotected – gassed, killed or orphaned.[198]

Definition of a Child

The lack of legal protection for children in times of war, which allows for their exploitation, can be linked to the lack of a universally recognized definition of a child during World War II.

Prior to the creation of the United Nations during World War II, protection of child welfare was predominantly embodied in the laws of war, jus in bello.[199] These laws sought to outlaw war.[200]

In relation to protecting the rights of children involved in the conflict, however, this concept failed to address the idea of a child-soldier at the time of World War II.

Furthermore, there was virtually no criminal liability placed on the child where a breach of jus in Bello occurred.[201] No legal limits excluded children being involved in armed conflicts, nor was there any definition of what a child was in relation to their ability to be involved in conflicts.

Now, by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the definition of a child is "a human being below the age of 18 years unless, 0under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier".

Hitler Youth

Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) was established as an organisation in Nazi Germany that physically trained youth and indoctrinated them with Nazi ideology to the point of fanaticism. Even at the onset of war, Hitler Youth totalled 8.8 million members. Numbers decreased significantly (to just over one million) once the war began as many local and district leaders were drafted for the national army. Previous average age for local and district leaders was 24, but following the onset of war, this had to change to those who were 16 and 17 years of age. These youths were in command of up to 500 boys.[202]

One Hitler Youth soldier, Heinz Shuetze, aged 15 from Leipzig, was only given a half day of training with a primitive form of anti-tank grenade launcher. He was immediately given an SS uniform and directed to the front lines to fight.[203]

Huge numbers of youths were removed from school in early 1945 and sent on, essentially, suicide missions.[203] Hitler Youth activities often included learning to throw grenades, dig trenches, bayonet drills and escaping under barbed wire under pistol fire and, while doing so boys were encouraged to find these activities exhilarating and exciting.[204] Hitler Youth was essentially an army of fit, young Germans that Hitler had created, trained to fight for their country. They had the choice to either follow Nazi party orders or face trial with the possibility of execution.[204]

The boys of Hitler Youth first saw action following the British Air Raids in Berlin in 1940. Later, in 1942, the Wehrertüchtigungslager or WELS (Defense Strengthening Camps) were created in Germany, which was designed to train Hitler Youth boys aged 16–18. They learnt how to handle German infantry weaponry, including hand grenades, machine guns and hand pistols. By 1943, Hitler Youth boys were facing the forces of the United Kingdom, the United States and Soviet Russia.[202]

Even younger boys from the ages of 10–14 years could be involved in the Hitler Youth movement, under the Deutsches Jungvolk.[202][204]

Girls were also involved in Hitler Youth Operations, although in a limited capacity, through the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM, the League of German Girls). Avoiding direct armed conflict, their primary role was to produce healthy, racially pure baby boys.[202] They were also required to run 60 metres in 14 seconds, throw a ball at least 12 metres, march for 2 hours and swim 100 metres.[202]

SS Youth Division

Towards the end of the War, the Germans established an entire SS Panzer Tank Division with the majority of its recruits being 16 and 17-year-old boys from the Hitler Youth brigades.[205] In the 1st Battalion over 65% were under 18 years old, and only 3% were over 25.[206] There were more than 10,000 boys in this division.[202]

The 12th SS Panzer Division of the Hitlerjugend, was established later in World War II as Germany suffered more casualties, and more young people volunteered, initially as reserves, but soon joined frontline troops. These children saw extensive action and were among the fiercest and most effective German defenders in the Battle of Berlin.[205] In the battle of the Normandy beaches, the division had suffered 60% casualties, most of whom were teenagers.[206]

These fearsome young boy soldiers acquired a formidable reputation for their violent and unforgiving practice, shooting prisoners, and were responsible for 64 deaths of British and Canadian soldiers between June 7–16, 1944.[202]

Other German Involvement

In late 1944, the People's Militia ("Volkssturm") was formed in anticipation of an Allied invasion. Men of all ages, from 16–60 were conscripted into this army.[202]

Children as young as 8 were reported to be captured by American troops, with boys aged 12 and under to man artillery units. Even girls were being placed in armed combat, operating the 88 mm (3 in) anti-aircraft guns alongside the boys.[202]

Jewish Resistance

During the Holocaust, Jews of all ages participated in the Jewish resistance simply to survive. Most Jewish Resistance took place after 1942 when the Nazi atrocities became clear.[207] Many Polish political leaders fled Warsaw at the onset of war, and those who remained were generally executed, jailed or forced to serve on the Jewish Council (Judenrat).[208]

Leaders of the Zionist Youth Movement who fled returned to Warsaw through a sense of responsibility as local leaders, for both youth in general and the wider Jewish community.[208] More than 100,000 young Jews participated in resistance youth movements, despite the Germans outlawing such activity.[209]

The Zionist groups' focus changed with the onset of war. Before the war, they focused on social and ideological development. Feeling a higher sense of responsibility to their people during the war, they set out to educate their people by setting up underground schools in ghettos.[208]

These leaders led a ghetto resistance, determining political and social action underground.[208] Youth of the Zionist resistance were part of the Armee Juive (Jewish Army) in France, created in 1942, an armed Jewish resistance in Western Europe. They took part in the 1944 uprisings against the Germans in Paris.[207]

Many members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The participation of children in this armed resistance is usually regarded as nothing short of heroic.[210]

Soviet Union's Red Army

A number of child soldiers served in the Soviet Union’s armed forces during World War II. In some cases, orphans also unofficially joined the Soviet Red Army. Such children were affectionately known as "son of the regiment" (Russian: сын полка) and sometimes willingly performed military missions such as reconnaissance. Officially, the age of military conscription was lowered to 18 for those without secondary education and 19 for those who had been educated beyond that. .[211]

Home Guard (UK)

In the United Kingdom, boys of 17 were accepted into the Home Guard when it was formed in 1940 in preparation for a German invasion and as a "last line of defence".[212] On 27 September 1942, the minimum age was lowered to 16 provided there was parental consent.[213] They were nicknamed "Dad's Army".[214] The Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, called for men between the ages of 17 and 65 for Home Guard duty, so it was voluntarily undertaken by those of the younger age. Initially a rag-tag militia, the Home Guard and its young volunteers became well-equipped and well-trained. More than 1,200 Home Guard men died from German bombings.[212]

Japanese Youth Military Groups

In anticipation of the possible Allied invasion of Japan, Japanese military authorities also trained young teenagers to fight the enemy with bamboo spears and other (often poorly) improvised weapons. Some Japanese children aged 17 years volunteered to be Kamikaze suicide pilots.[205]

Prior to that, Japanese school children experienced increased military training introduced through their physical education classes, with military drills becoming a staple part of their curriculum.

The Japanese Imperial Army mobilized students aged 14–17 years in Okinawa island for the Battle of Okinawa. This mobilization was conducted by the ordinance of the Ministry of Army, not by law. The ordinances mobilized the student for a volunteer soldier for form's sake. However, in reality, the military authorities ordered schools to force almost all students to "volunteer" for soldiers. Sometimes they counterfeited the necessary documents of students. And student soldiers "Tekketsu Kinnotai" were often killed, such as in suicide attacks against a tank with bombs and in guerrilla operations.

After losing in the Battle of Okinawa in June 1945, the Japanese government enacted new laws in preparation for the decisive battles in the main islands. They were the laws that made it possible boys aged 15 or older and girls aged 17 or older to be drafted into the army for actual battles. Those who escaped the draft were punished by imprisonment.

The Japanese surrender, however, had forestalled the Allied invasion of the Japanese main islands, and therefore rendered these child soldiers unnecessary.[215]

Changes since WWII to protect children

The introduction of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child in 1989 was the first time that any formal commitment was entered into that specified, protected and realized the human rights of a child.[216] This Convention sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children.

Lack of definition of 'child' and lack of protecting a child from exploitation in times of war allowed for children to be used as soldiers and in other war-related activities in World War II.

Currently, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines a child soldier as "any child – boy or girl – under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity".[217] This age limit of 18 is relatively new, only introduced in 2002 under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Prior to 2002, the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1977 Additional Protocols, set 15 as the minimum age to participate in armed conflict.[218]

Convicting children of World War II crimes

It is a contentious issue whether children should be able to be prosecuted for committing war crimes.[219]

Following the creation of the United Nations in 1945, and subsequent international conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, child rights have been notably asserted and protected.[220] Immediately following WWII, children involved in the armed conflict were not able to be prosecuted, as the legislative instruments did not exist to do so. Currently, international law does not prohibit children in being prosecuted for war crimes they committed, although article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child does limit the punishment a child can receive. This includes "neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age".[221]

Under Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was adopted in 1998, and came into force in 2002, "Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" is a war crime.[222]

Under the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or armed groups, those children accused of war crimes, should primarily be treated as victims and treated in accordance with international law under restorative justice, rehabilitation that is consistent with child protection treaties and principles.[1]

There were some cases from World War II, where children were prosecuted for war crimes for actions undertaken during the war. Two 15-year-old ex-Hitler Youth were convicted of violating laws of war, by being party to a shooting of a prisoner of war. The youths' age was a mitigating factor in their sentencing.[223] No child has been prosecuted for a war crime, since World War II, by any court or military tribunal.[224]

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

In the most notorious case, the Khmer Rouge group exploited thousands of desensitized conscripted children to commit mass murders and other inhuman acts during the Cambodian genocide. The indoctrinated child soldiers were taught to follow any order without hesitation.[226]

Northern Ireland

During the Troubles (c. 1960s to 1998), it was common to recruit and use children, including as combatants.[227][228] Five children in Republican paramilitary groups, seven in Loyalist paramilitary groups, and five in the British armed forces, died during the conflict.[227] The youngest, Cathleen McCartland, was recruited by the IRA and was aged 12 when she was killed in Belfast.[229]

Sierra Leone

Thousands of children were recruited and used by all sides during Sierra Leone’s conflict (1991–2002), including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF). Children were often forcibly recruited, given drugs and used to commit atrocities. Thousands of girls were also recruited as soldiers and often subjected to sexual exploitation. Many of the children were survivors of village attacks, while others were found abandoned. They were used for patrol purposes, attacking villages, and guarding workers in the diamond fields. In his book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier, Ishmael Beah chronicles his life during the conflict in Sierra Leone.

In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three accused men from the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years into the armed forces. With this, the Special Court became the first-ever UN backed tribunal to deliver a guilty verdict for the military conscription of children.[230] The issue is also discussed thoroughly in the Bones episode, "The Survivor In The Soap".


Originally created to protect Northern Ugandans from the 1986 military coup by the People's National Resistance Army, Joseph Kony began the LRA – Lord's Resistance Army in 1987. Stating that he "received messages from God" Kony began attacking his own people – the Acholi – to establish a new theocratic government in Uganda based on the principles of the "Ten Commandments of God." This attempt by the LRA to gain control of the Ugandan government via roaming armies has used boy as well as girl-children as soldiers,[231] such as Grace Akallo.[232] The LRA expansion into South Sudan, Central African Republic and the DRC – Democratic Republic of Congo has armies with children active in efforts to destabilize the regions by the displacement of civilians through abduction and extreme violence. On the 21st of October 2008, an appeal by the UN Security Council, was made asking for the LRA to cease all military actions against humanitarian violations in the DRC immediately.[233] On 14 June 2002 Uganda deposited its instrument of ratification of the Rome Statute, and on 16 December 2003 the Government of Uganda referred the situation concerning Northern Uganda to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).[234] The ICC investigated the situation,[235] and on 14 October 2005, issued indictments against Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, and four other commanders, (Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya (indictment terminated, deceased), Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen) for war crimes. The warrant for Kony, Otti and Odhiambo includes the alleged crime of forced enlisting of children (Rome Statute Art. 8(2) (e)(vii)).[236][237]

The National Resistance Army also made use of child soldiers.[238]

Rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers

Child Soldiers International defines reintegration as:

"The process through which children formerly associated with armed forces/groups are supported to return to civilian life and play a valued role in their families and communities"[239]

Programs that aim to rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers, such as those sponsored by UNICEF, often emphasize three components: family reunification/community network, psychological support, and education/economic opportunity.[3][240] These efforts take a minimum commitment of 3 to 5 years in order for programs to be successfully implemented.[3][240] Generally, reintegration efforts seek to return children to a safe environment, to create a sense of forgiveness on the behalf of the child's family and community through religious and cultural ceremonies and rituals, and encourage the reunification of the child with his or her family.[3][240]

Reintegration efforts can become challenging when the child in question has committed war crimes because in these cases stigma and resentment within the community can be exacerbated. In situations such as these, it is important that the child's needs are balanced with a sense of community justice.[3][240] These situations should be addressed immediately because if not, many children face the threat of re-enlistment.[239]

There are also two areas of reintegration that warrant special consideration: female child soldiers and drug use among child soldiers.[4][240] Child soldiers under the influence of drugs or who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases require additional programming specific to their unique needs.[3][240]

Special Consideration: Female Recruits

Although former child soldiers report similar levels of war-related trauma after demobilization, girls report significantly higher rates of rape and sexual abuse during a conflict and are, therefore, confronted with unique, gender-specific challenges. They often face stronger stigmatization upon their return to the community since they are often tainted by any and all sexual relationships that occurred with a man outside of marriage.[239] They were often ostracized upon return, ridiculed, verbally and physically attacked, and prohibited from marrying.[241]

Between 1990 and 2002, female soldiers were involved in internal armed conflicts in 36 countries. In countries such as Angola, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, as many as 30–40% of child soldiers are female.[242] Reasons for joining these groups are varied. In Colombia, many girls decide to join for ideological and financial reasons, although being in with love with an existing soldier is also a common reason cited.[242] In Colombia and Cambodia, girls are also often given as “tax payment” by parents.[242] While serving as part of a fighting group is a traumatic experience for any child, the gender of the child must be taken into account in order to ensure that both males and females get effective help. Local anecdotes have found that females are often referred to as “wives”, “rewards for soldiers’ valor”, or victims of social terror. Other common roles include spies, porters, or minesweepers.[242]

A 13-year-old fighter from Honduras reports:

“Later I joined the armed struggle. I had all the inexperience and the fears of a little girl. I found out that girls were obliged to have sexual relations to alleviate the sadness of the combatants. And who alleviated our sadness after going with someone we hardly knew?”[243]

Health and psychosocial effects after reintegration

Evidence has shown that female soldiers are released (as part of a DDR program) at lower rates than male soldiers.[242] Many female child soldiers suffer from a variety of health effects including, but not limited to: pregnancy and birth complications, vaginal and cervical tearing and sores, lack of health and medical infrastructure, and effects related to structural inequalities such as poorer access health care, heavier workloads, and less freedom.[242] Other health effects include STDs and HIV which are oftentimes passed down during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.[242] Consequences for pregnancies depend on the reproductive status and practices of the armed group. Females could either be encouraged to carry the pregnancy (to create future fighters), be forced to abort, or if carried to term, female soldiers often would have to give their child to peasants to raise then reclaim when he or she reached fighting age.[242]

During reintegration, many of these females experience a variety of negative psycho-social effects. For example, former Sierra Leonean female child soldiers were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and lower self-confidence than their male counterparts.[244] Reintegrated females often do not desire to enter into any marital relationships, sometimes choosing to withdraw from men altogether and this often results in further social stigma and further societal isolation.[242] Female child soldiers may be additionally stigmatized by their family/community for having had sexual relations and/or children out of marriage [3][240][245] and may not want to participate in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs as involvement denote association with an armed group.[246]

DDR programs can also be too militarized to attract large female enrollment; failure to provide necessary childcare, clothes or sanitary supplies; or fail to demobilize girls completely due to their status as soldiers’ wives.[245][246][242] These necessary resources can ensure proper life maintenance and preventative security from further sexual assault and violence.

Reintegration Program Components

Family reunification

Often, the first step in the reintegration of child soldiers is family unification – reuniting the former child soldier with their family members and providing adequate monetary and institutional support for families.[99][240] When this is not possible, attempts can be made to place former child soldier in foster families or to assist the former child soldier with independent living.[240] In Angola, a family reunification project was implemented entitled "self-building program", which supported former child soldiers and their families in the construction of a house.[247]

There may be concerns as to whether the family will accept the child after they have been a soldier. In Uganda, this acceptance was achieved through the use of cleansing ceremonies, which has assisted in the removal of community stigmatization by "decontaminating" the child.[16][247]

Community support and acceptance

Community networks can also be instrumental in the reunification of former child soldiers with their families and their communities. Reintegration programs often aim to find a constructive social role for the former child soldier. Working in partnership with various local NGOs is also important for capacity-building and to encourage sustainable efforts that will last after international actors have left.[248]

In Angola, a community-based network called 'Catechist' has a partnership with approximately 200 churches in Angola.[16][247] The Catechist was perceived as being neutral, having a sense of authority, and adherence to international humanitarian law.[16][247] Given this, the network, respected by the community, has the capacity for outreach and was thus able to provide permanent support in the reintegration process.[16][247]

Former child soldiers, however, are not the only ones in need of healing. The broader community has also been witness to the armed conflict and probably lost loved ones to the war. A focus on community healing should also be an aspect of reintegration, because community healing can lead to community acceptance. It is also important to keep in mind that many armed conflicts occur among collectivistic societies and therefore this can be a better-suited approach, instead of only treating the individual.[248] By involving the community in the healing process, it avoids outsider imposition of values and understanding.[248] Before community healing and the construction of some semblance of peace can occur, a more comprehensive approach much be taken to remedy many systemic problems in war zones such as the short supply of water, food, shelter, and other basic necessities.[248]However, there is often a lack of professional, institutional, and economic support for this form of family and community reintegration.[99][239]

Psychological support

As part of their training, child soldiers undergo a process of asocialization and, consequently, may be resistant to changing their identity from that of a child soldier.[3][240] Studies have shown that psychosocial approaches – a psychological process that takes place in the community – are more beneficial than Western-driven trauma healing in dealing with the psychological aspects of reintegration.[3][240][248] Some of these approaches encompass emotional expression, group and individual counseling, cultural rituals, social reconstruction, and emotional reintegration.[248] These psychosocial approaches support physical health as well as cognitive, emotional, and moral development.[18][247]

Through partnerships with local NGOs, clinical psychologists are often able to train locals to administer these interventions, and therefore this involves and empowers the community more directly in the healing process, instead of silencing local healers and local practices.[248] Given this, reintegration programs emphasize the opportunity for former child soldiers to establish trusting and consistent relationships with adults and also emphasize a family-based environment.[3][240] Traditional rituals and family and community mediation can address the unsocial and aggressive behavior a child soldier may have developed and helped the child recover from stressful and traumatic experiences.[3][240]

Education and economic opportunity

Education and economic opportunities help the former child soldier to establish a new identity for themselves and they empower them to take active control of their lives.[4][99][240] Access to education is one of the most requested forms of support in a post-conflict environment; however, it is often dismissed for economic reasons.[18][247]

Access to formal education remains a challenge for a multitude of reasons:[4][240]

  • The need to earn an income supersedes the desire for education;
  • The family cannot afford education;
  • Schools have been destroyed as a result of the conflict or there is a lack of teachers;
  • Difficulty in obtaining documentation to enroll in educational institutions; or that
  • Child soldiers feel shame for their actions and/or there is resentment between the former child soldiers and their classmates.

It is important to strike a balance between education and economic opportunity.[4][240] Key aspects of striking this balance often include:[18][247]

  • The creation of accelerated formal education program and alternative education models that suit the needs of the former child soldiers;
  • Focusing education on approaches that can generate income, such as market-appropriate vocational training; and
  • The inclusion of child soldier reintegration in the post-conflict economic policy of the country in question.

Application of Reintegration Efforts

Example: Colombia

Colombia's armed conflict has been ongoing since the 1960s. While there have been efforts to demobilize major armed groups such as the FARC, there are many other existing groups and the conflict is not yet over. The existing DDR in Colombia is carried out by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) and is called the Program of Assistance to Demobilized Children and Youth. Since its inception in 1999, it had worked with 3,124 youth by the end of February 2007 with over 76% being males.[99] It has focused on a “post-conflict” framework rather than reframing to work within a context of ongoing conflict.[13]

Former Colombian child soldiers have reported the most difficult parts of reintegration as being the transition and displacement from rural to urban life (often to protect children from the threats of retaliation and re-enlistment), reuniting with their family, and being removed from a context of organized armed violence.[13][99] This displacement and separation from family often comes coupled with many unintended consequences such as starting families early in order to regain the sense of family that was lost and urgency to use demobilization stipend in order to start a business or send money to family.[99] Because of this urgency to make money to support one's family, education opportunities are often foregone.[99] However, the program has made use of partnerships such as one with Profamilia (a family planning NGO) and the National Service of Learning (SENA) to drive down teen pregnancy and also encourage vocational training to get ready for formal employment.[99]

Unfortunately, the program has been unsuccessful in family reunification. By the end of March 2007, the program had only been able to reunite 14% of the children with their birth family.[99] There are many reasons for this including the displacement and difficulty of physically reuniting a family, lack of resources, or also cases of children not wanting to go back. Over 25% of the children from the program reported not having lived with their birth families prior to joining the armed group, mainly due to cases of violence, abuse, and neglect.[99] Since family reunification is not always possible, there has been increased use of foster care to place children with families. However, not only are very few families willing to take in a former child soldier, but older children and those with drug addiction or mental health problems have larger difficulty in being placed.[99] Youth that cannot be placed often stay in urban center-based institutions such as YMCA.[99] Unfortunately 60% of the cases have remained in institutional care.[99]

A distinguishing feature of the DDR programs in Colombia that many successful programs share is the link between education and economic activity to later efforts such as establishing an entrepreneurial mindset; however, the lack of familial and community support often results in many of them failing and often finding themselves in a more precarious situation than before.[99]

Existing DDR programs in Colombia predominantly focus on protecting former soldiers from each other rather than addressing the fear and stigma that each group suffers. Instead, advocates have pushed for public awareness through campaigns and advocacy to eliminate existing stigma, facilitate knowledge, and empower individuals to become active participants in the reconstruction of their life.[13][99]

Example: Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone endured a civil war from 1991 to 2002. Child soldiers played a key role in the Revolutionary United Front and a more minor role in government forces and various militias throughout the countryside.[249] UNICEF states that during this time period 84,666 children were officially documented as missing.[250] The conflict seemed to come to an end with the signing of the Lome accord in 1999. However, conflict still flared up and fighting did not cease until 2000.[251] The disarmament and demobilization portions ended in January 2002.[252]

After the Civil War's conclusion in 2002, the rehabilitation and reintegration process focused primarily on community-based solutions. The main goal was to reunite children with their families. To this end, a number of Interim Care Centers (ICC) were established and administered by child protection NGOs.[253] These ICCs sought to serve as temporary stops for children while their family was searched for. In the end, 98% of demobilized children were reunited with one or both parents, older siblings, or extended family.[254] ICCs kept children for no longer than six weeks before returning former child soldiers to family or foster care.[250] ICCs began the process of rehabilitating these kids back into society. They separated child soldiers from the command structures that dominated much of their lives over the past few years.[250] Additionally, former child soldiers were to become re-accustomed to domestic life through their involvement with ICCs. This included performing chores, living on a normal schedule, receiving an education, and playing with other children.[255] Notably, the ICCs were not focused on providing formal, western psychotherapy sessions and less than 100 children received therapy.[250] These sessions were applied sparingly and deemed as largely unnecessary by most organizations working with child soldiers on the ground.

Reintegration centered on easing former child soldiers back into their communities. Parents and family members were often eager to welcome back children who had been child soldiers. To help them, various NGOs provided local family classes on how to deal with children who had been traumatized by the troubles of war.[250] The local community, on the other hand, was less accepting of these children and often even attacked aid workers for being associated with child soldiers. This did not apply to children who were part of the pro-government Civil Defense Force, which was widely seen as helpful to local communities.[250] Wider social acceptance is shown in studies to have been crucial in easing trauma from child soldiers.[256] To this end, communities were educated as to the traumas experienced by child soldiers as well as given help to organize traditional cleansing ceremonies. Additionally, children who were branded with symbols of the groups who abducted them were given plastic surgery to remove scars or tattoos.[257] Beyond this, schools received additional funding in order to incentivize the intake of former child soldiers.[256]

92% of the participants in UNICEF’s formal DDR program were males.[250] Former female child soldiers were often not included out of personal shame or due to not being combatants. Many female children were used for sex or married off in bush marriages.[258] These marriages tended to keep females isolated and their husbands often would not allow them to engage in rehabilitation programs.[259] Additionally, ICCs were often integrated between genders leading to female former child soldiers reporting instances of harassment or assault by males. [257]

Example: Sudan

The Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2002) was fought between the central Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).[260] In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed by both parties. The immediate release of all child soldiers was supposed to occur after the signage of the CPA, but due to lingering tensions, this did not occur. Some, but not all child soldiers were released from the SPLA. DDR policies were developed to help former soldiers and create a more stable infrastructure aimed at ensuring human safety for the future. Creating the DDR policies was difficult because neither the government nor the SPLA shared exact numbers or demographics of their soldiers.[261]

Child soldiers were labeled a ‘special group’ and in the drafting of the Interim Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration Program (IDDRP), they were given special protections. After the signing of the CPA, policy-makers began working on a multi-year DDR program. The DDR programs included health checks, education opportunities, employment opportunities, bundles of supplies, and other services. After DDR began to be implemented, it was discovered that most of the people who were being chosen to participate were not actually active members of the military. Therefore, many of the people who had left the ranks of the military were being drawn back in order to take part in the DDR program. Largely, the DDR efforts for child soldiers in South Sudan failed, mainly due to remaining tensions and a likelihood of continued war.[262]

In 2013, the conflicts resumed after the president and vice president declared war on each other and the warfare is still ongoing.[263] In 2015, there were reportedly 16,000 children being used by armed groups in South Sudan.[264] Due to the armed conflict, more than half of elementary and primary school-aged children were not receiving an education.[265] Researchers have argued that education is vital in preventing re-recruitment, but accessing education is difficult for demobilized former child soldiers because of the effects of war, socioeconomic status, and a lack of educational structures.[266] Children in South Sudan who have participated in or have been involved with the conflict report feelings of isolation, stigma, and exclusion.[267]

See also


Well-known cases of children used for military purposes

Campaigns and campaigners to end the use of children in the military

Related crimes against children

Related international law

Other minority groups in the military

In media

  • Johnny Mad Dog, a movie about child soldiers, with former child soldier actors.

Further reading

  • Vautravers, A. J. (2009). Why Child Soldiers are Such a Complex Issue. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 27(4), 96–107. doi:10.1093/rsq/hdp002
  • Humphreys, Jessica Dee (2015). Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War. Toronto: Kids Can Press ISBN 978-1-77138-126-0
  • International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) & The Global Center on Cooperative Security (September 2017). "Correcting the Course: Juvenile Justice Principles for Children Convicted of Violent Extremism Offenses", ICCT & GCCS, 1–12.


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External links

  • International Center for Transitional Justice, Children and Youth page
  • Amnesty International campaign
  • Child Soldiers International
  • Children in war – Children protected under the international humanitarian law, ICRC
  • Sudan's Suffering Children, Every Child Ministries
  • The International Labour Organisation's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour on child soldiers
  • War Child
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
  • La vita non perde valore: the documentary focuses, ten years after the Sierra Leone war ending, on the reintegration, lead by Father Giuseppe Berton, of former child soldiers. Analyzed in different Universities, becoming subject to various degrees.
  • "Girl Soldiers – The cost of survival in Northern Uganda",
  • "Invisible Children—The Tragedy in Uganda, Every Child Ministries",
  • "University lectures on Child Soldiers,"
  • "Children of Karamoja,"
  • "Child Soldiers & the Law: A Survey",
  • "Human Rights Watch campaign",
  • "HRW list of child soldier incidents",
  • "Interview: Children Abducted for Terrorism in Sri Lanka",
  • "Global Report 2004 – United States" (PDF),
  • "BBC report: Sex slavery awaits Ugandan schoolgirls", BBC News.
  • "BBC report: Ugandan army recruiting children", BBC News.
  • "BBC report: Criticism of British child soldier recruitment", BBC News.
  • "The Guardian report: Armies of girls caught up in conflict", The Guardian.
  • "Children and armed conflictUnited Nations Security Council Resolution 1539 (2004)" (PDF), United Nations.
  • "The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada",
  • "PA Indoctrination of Children to Seek Heroic Death for Allah",
  • EU guidelines on children and armed conflict adopted at the General Affairs Council meeting on 8 December 2003.
  • War Child International – Child Soldier links & resources
  • "Child Soldiers", DCAF.
  • "Use of Child Soldiers in Sri Lanka,"
  • "The Child Soldiers of Staten Island", Mother Jones.
  • "Telling You the Facts", documentary, former child soldiers from Liberia speak out,
  • "Though A New Lens: A Child-Sensitive Approach to Transitional Justice[permanent dead link]", "International Center for Transitional Justice"
  • "Child soldiers" – Facts, stories and videos of child soldiers by UK charity War Child.
  • Child soldiers now veterans
  • Convention on the rights of the child
  • Involvement of children in armed formations during the military conflict in Donbas
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