Millions of children are affected by war and armed violence around the world. Some children are victims of violence, while others are forced to take part in the violence, either by supporting fighting forces or actively fighting. Children who take part in war and armed violence are commonly referred to as “child soldiers.”
Child soldiers are frequently referred to as a “children associated with armed forces and armed groups.” Any boy or girl who provides a service of any kind to an armed force (i.e. the military institution of a state) or an armed group (i.e. groups distinct from the state’s military institution) is included in the definition.
Children who live in areas affected by conflict are particularly in danger of recruitment. This is because in these areas, there is a general lack of security and protection. According to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2008, armed groups in at least 24 countries located in every region of the world have been known to have recruited children and many have used them in fighting activities. The majority of children recruited as child soldiers are in non-state armed groups.
In conflict-affected settings, forced recruitment is the most common way for children to become child soldiers. They are manipulated, abducted or intimidated with violence so that they join the armed group.
There are various other reasons why children join armed groups. Some children join because of the lack of alternatives to extreme poverty, insecurity, discrimination, or even violence in their home or community. These children may believe that the armed force or group is the best option for their survival. Others may join for political or ideological reasons; a desire for justice or to avenge the death of one or more family members. Some may join to escape difficult family relationships or are attracted to the military and its weapons.
Duties of child soldiers
Once ‘recruited’, many child soldiers are forced to perform one or more of the following duties during war:
- carry weapons and/or ammunition
- carry heavy loads for the armed force/group
- act as spies or messengers
- lay anti-personnel mines
- perform sexual acts for members of the armed force/group
- engage in fighting, including the perpetration of physical and sexual violence
- cook, clean and do the washing.
Those who refuse to perform these duties or who do not obey orders are punished or even killed, often in front of other child soldiers. In some cases, children are given drugs and/or alcohol to alleviate their fear of going into battle, or to remain submissive to their commanders. Some children are even forced to kill their own family or community members during their recruitment, which effectively makes them dependent on the armed force or group for their “protection” and survival.
While girls are often sexually abused and forced to become the “wives” of male combatants, they can also take on the same responsibilities as boys. Ultimately, the obedience and loyalty of child soldiers is won through fear, helplessness and psychological trauma; but as time passes, child soldiers may begin to identify more with the armed force or group than with the civilian population.
What happens after demobilisation?
Some children may find a way to escape from an armed force or armed group and return to their home community. Others may be released when the armed force or group no longer wants their services. Some then participate in a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme. Unlike those for adult combatants, child programmes require that the release and demobilisation of children be carried out even during a conflict. In addition, efforts have to continue to prevent the (re-)recruitment of child soldiers.
It might sound paradoxical, but returning to civilian life can be difficult for child soldiers. They may struggle to assume their traditional roles, or to accept the authority of adults. They may no longer feel like children, which can be problematic if their family or community expects them to behave like children. Some families may be even be uncertain of or reject the reintegration of their child if that child had previously been forced to use violence against his or her community.
Girls who had been associated with armed groups are even more prone to stigmatisation and discrimination than boys, especially if they return to their community having given birth to their own child. Some child mothers and their children are rejected by their families, leaving them socially isolated and economically vulnerable. What is more, girls who experienced the same responsibilities as boys may often find their reintegration disappointing and dissatisfying, as they have to resume a more traditional female role to meet the expectations of their community. Depending on their former military rank, this may make them feel less powerful or independent, feelings they may have experienced during the war.
Global action to prevent child soldiers
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (2002) on the involvement of children in armed conflict binds states parties to a wide range of measures to protect minors. The 139 states parties have committed themselves to setting 15 years as the minimum age at which an individual can be voluntarily recruited into or enlist in the armed forces, and to ensure that children under 15 have no direct part in hostilities. It also commits states parties to take legal measures to prohibit independent armed groups from recruiting and using children under the age of 18 in conflicts.
The large majority of states parties have set the minimum age at which an individual can enter the military, including for training, at 18. However, a number of developed countries still insist on maintaining the need to voluntarily recruit 16- and 17-year olds into their own forces. According to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2008, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the United States are some of these states.
Germany ratified the Optional Protocol in 2004, yet every year, several hundred 17-year olds begin their military career, be it in the latest Voluntary Service (FWD) or in the course of certain military training for which thousands of information events take place in German schools.
Action is taken against individuals who recruit and use child soldiers through the International Criminal Court (ICC) or ad hoc international or hybrid courts such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Each year, on 12 February, UNICEF and many other NGOs participate in the international Red Hand Day to campaign against the use of child soldiers.