Who Are Child Soldiers?

The internationally agreed definition for a child associated with an armed force or armed group (child soldier) is any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.
(Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, 2007.)
 

Since 2000, the participation of child soldiers has been reported in most armed conflicts and in almost every region of the world. Although there are no exact figures, and numbers continually change, tens of thousands of children under the age of 18 continue to serve in government forces or armed opposition groups. Some of those involved in armed conflict are under 10 years old.

Both girls and boys are used in armed conflict and play a wide variety of roles. These can involve frontline duties including as fighters but they may also be used in other roles such as porters, couriers, spies, guards, suicide bombers or human shields, or to perform domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. Girls and boys may also be used for sexual purposes by armed forces or groups.

Many children that participate in armed conflict are unlawfully recruited, either by force or at an age below that which is permitted in national law or international standards. Although international standards do not prohibit the voluntary recruitment of 16 and 17 year olds by armed forces, it is contrary to best practice. Today close to two thirds of states recognise that banning under-18s from military ranks is necessary to protect them from the risk of involvement in armed conflict and to ensure their well-being, and that their other rights as children are respected.

Voices of Children
Maung Zaw Oo - Myanmar
"They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16 I was slapped and he said, 'You are 18. Answer 18'. He asked me again and I said, 'But that's my true age'. The sergeant asked, 'Then why did you enlist in the army?' I said, 'Against my will. I was captured.' He said, 'Okay, keep your mouth shut then,' and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, 'Then please let me make one phone call,' but they refused that too."
Maung Zaw Oo, describing the second time he was forced into the Tatmadaw Kyi (army) in 2005.
Voices of Children
Indonesia
"I know the work [monitoring the apparatus] is dangerous, and my parents had tried to stop me from getting involved. But I want to do something for the nanggroe therefore I was called for the fight. I am ready for all risks."
Boy interviewed in March 2004: worked as an informant for the armed political group Free Aceh Movement, to spy on the Indonesian military when he was 17 years old.
Voices of Children
Democratic Republic of the Congo
"When they came to my village, they asked my older brother whether he was ready to join the militia. He was just 17 and he said no; they shot him in the head. Then they asked me if I was ready to sign, so what could I do - I didn't want to die."
A former child soldier taken when he was 13. (Source: BBC report.)
Voices of Children
Democratic Republic of the Congo
"Being new, I couldn't perform the very difficult exercises properly and so I was beaten every morning. Two of my friends in the camp died because of the beatings. The soldiers buried them in the latrines. I am still thinking of them"
Former child soldier interviewed in 2002.
Go to International Standards