FAQs

Why do children join armed forces or armed groups?

Children join armed forces or groups for many reasons. In some situations children are forcibly recruited as a result of coercion, abduction or under threat of penalty. However, many children “volunteer” often as a result of economic or social pressures, or because they believe the group will offer an income, food or security.

Children are particularly vulnerable to recruitment if they are poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in a combat zone or have limited access to education.

Is the child soldier problem worse among armed groups than government armed forces?

Child soldier use by non-state armed groups is widespread: dozens of groups are known to unlawfully recruit and use boys and girls. However, the record of some governments is also poor. Since 2010, child soldier use by 20 states has been reported either directly in government armed forces or indirectly in armed groups which they support or are allied to. In addition, around 40 states still have a minimum voluntary recruitment age below 18 years.
Child Soldiers International considers that any military recruitment of under-18s creates unnecessary and unacceptable risks to children.

Are there girl child soldiers?

Girls are recruited and used as soldiers in virtually all conflicts. They are most often present in non-state armed groups but are also used by government forces. Though exact numbers are impossible to know, worldwide estimates suggest that girls may account for between 10 and 30 per cent of children in fighting forces. Girls are used to perform similar tasks to boys in both combat and non-combat roles. They are especially vulnerable to sexual violence.

There have been repeated calls to take into account the special needs and vulnerabilities of girls affected by armed conflict and to consider their requirements during disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process.

Why does Child Soldiers International campaign for a minimum age for recruitment set at 18 years?

Child Soldiers International bases its work on international legal standards for child protection. The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any person below the age of 18. It states that children and youth below 18 require special protection because of their evolving physical and mental maturity. Virtually all states have pledged to implement the provisions of the Convention.

Under international law (the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, OPAC) the minimum age for recruitment and use by non-state armed groups is 18 years. States are also prohibited from using under-18s in hostilities, but enlistment (voluntary recruitment) is permitted from 16 (although regional standards set the age at 18).

The anomaly of this provision in OPAC is a product of compromise during the treaty drafting process and is contrary to the practice of almost two thirds of states and to the position of UN and other international experts. The dominant trend is towards a “straight-18 ban” (prohibition on the military recruitment or use of children under 18 years without exception).

Should child soldiers who have committed war crimes or other serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law be held to account?

International human rights and child protection experts generally recognize that child soldiers are first and foremost victims of grave abuses of human rights, and that states must prioritize the prosecution of those who unlawfully recruit and use them.

Child soldiers should never be prosecuted solely for their association with the armed forces or group. However, there will be cases where a child soldier was clearly in control of his or her actions, was not coerced, drugged, or forced into committing atrocities. In such cases, excluding criminal responsibility for these children may deny justice to the victims and may also not be in the child’s own best interests.

While in these cases criminal investigations and prosecutions should not be ruled out a priori, the individual concerned must be afforded all the guarantees and protection of international juvenile justice standards.

Where are child soldiers used today?

There have been reports of child soldier use in the following countries since January 2011:

  • Afghanistan: national army and other elements of state security forces; armed opposition groups.
  • Central African Republic: state-allied armed groups.
  • Colombia: national army (for intelligence purposes); armed opposition groups.
  • Côte d’Ivoire: national army/state security forces; state-allied armed groups; armed opposition groups.
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: national army and other elements of state security forces; Congolese and foreign armed opposition groups.
  • India: armed opposition groups.
  • Iraq: elements of state security forces.
  • Israel: national army (for intelligence purposes).
  • Libya: national army and other elements of state security forces; armed opposition groups.
  • Mali: armed opposition groups.
  • Myanmar: national army and other elements of state security forces; armed opposition groups.
  • Pakistan: armed opposition groups.
  • Philippines: national army (for intelligence purposes) and other elements of state security forces; armed opposition groups.
  • Thailand: other elements of state security forces and armed opposition groups.
  • Somalia: national army; state-allied armed groups; armed opposition groups.
  • Sudan: national army and other elements of state security forces; state-allied armed groups; armed opposition groups.
  • South Sudan: national army; armed opposition groups.
  • Syria: national army and state-allied armed groups (use of children as human shields); armed opposition groups.
  • Yemen: national army and other elements of state security forces; state-allied armed groups; armed opposition groups.

In addition the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) an armed opposition group which originated in Uganda and which recruits and uses child soldiers is present in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Eritrea and Rwanda are reported to have provided military support to armed opposition groups in neighbouring states (Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively) during this period.

- National army refers to army, navy and air force.
- Other elements of state security forces refers to government forces established by law or otherwise officially recognised.
- State-allied armed groups refers to non-state armed groups that are backed by or allied to government forces but which are not officially part of them.
- Armed opposition groups refers to non-state or irregular armed groups which use arms for political reasons.