There are over 300,000 child soldiers fighting in wars around the world. Most of these child soldiers are adolescents, although many are 8 years old or younger. - Human Rights Watch
A child soldier is a girl or boy under the age of 18 who is forcibly or voluntarily recruited to participate in hostilities by armed forces, paramilitaries or other armed groups. Child soldiers are used as combatants, sexual slaves, messengers or cooks. Forcible recruitment occurs in any place where children gather, including schools and orphanages. The past decade has seen more children under 18 being abducted and recruited to serve in armies, rebel forces and paramilitaries.
- Children are currently being used as soldiers in over 33 on-going or recent conflicts. (Human Rights Watch)
There are numerous cultural, social, economic and political pressures forcing children to join the armed forces in their countries. Children who “volunteer” to participate in conflicts, do so because they feel they have no alternative means of survival. Children also sometimes join armed groups because they are threatened with the destruction of their families if they do not join. In fact, children may be forced to commit atrocities against their own family to ensure that they are stigmatized and unable to return to their community. Most child soldiers come from families too poor to feed themselves. Commanders either abduct forcibly or lure these youth with promises to pay their families for the services provided by the child; however, as conflicts drag on, there are few alternatives to violence for children. Education becomes a luxury rather than a right, and without an education there is little hope for improved economic conditions.
Armed forces take advantage of children because they are impressionable. They argue that children can be desensitized to violence, giving them the ability to commit the most ruthless crimes without inhibition. They also argue that the lives of children are expendable, since child soldiers can easily be replaced by new “recruits” after they are killed or simply grow older. The cheap availability of lightweight, small arms such as guns, has also allowed children to become fighters. Some governments actually legitimize recruiting children by not registering their births: if there is no birth certificate, it is easy to fabricate the age of the recruit as "18" to comply with international guidelines.
An automatic small arm like an M16 which is virtually indestructible and can fire around 40 rounds per minute can be purchased on the global market for about $6 dollars.
Case Study: The Democratic Republic of the Congo
“I regret my time in the army; I would like to say to other children not to join. To those who cause war I have nothing to say because I am too young. If I had power...” his voice trails off here and he looks at the floor, “Everyone is killing people, dying for nothing.”
- Congolese child soldier, as told to Refugees International
Both forced and voluntary recruitment of children is illegal according to Congolese national law and international law. The Congolese Transitional Constitution (2003) prohibits the recruitment of children under age 18 into the armed forces, as well as their participation in hostilities (Article 184). Yet tens of thousands of children are child soldiers in DRC. The UN Secretary-General has identified 10 parties to armed conflict in the DRC that use children in violation of international law.
Child soldiers are still present in all armed groups in DRC, and in some cases represent up to 35 percent of troops being sent to the fight in the front lines.
Former child soldiers face detention, unfair trials and harsh punishments by the government. Even though they may be illegally recruited, some children are in prison and accused of desertion. Children suffer deplorable prison conditions for months on end, with little access to health care or attention paid to their special needs and rights. Some children have faced closed and unfair trails before military courts, without legal representation, and some have been sentenced to death.
Humanitarian groups in the DRC are working to remove children from armed groups. A number of NGOs are helping to rehabilitate child soldiers and reunite them with their families. However, the reintegration of former child soldiers into the society is a difficult process; NGOs often have to appeal to churches, teachers, women's groups to accept them. Wherever possible, NGOs encourage children to return to school, or to learn trades such as fishing or farming.
Want to learn more?
Refugees International - Dying for Nothing: The Voice of a Congolese Child Soldier:
The Online Youth Companion to the Graca Machel Review:
Human Rights Watch - Facts About Child Soldiers:
Human Rights Watch - The Voices of Child Soldiers: