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.