The recruitment and exploitation of children in war persists at alarming levels across multiple conflicts. However, the reality of their experiences, how they ended up there, and where they exist are often mis-represented. Here, we address some of the most common child soldier myths. 

There are ‘300,000 child solders’ worldwide

This is the biggest myth of them of all. It was a ‘guestimate’ produced by child protection actors in the late 1990s and although organisations, including ourselves, used it as such at the time it has since been widely referenced as a definitive figure by media and others. More than 20 years on it is still regularly publicised. 

In truth, it is impossible to put a concrete figure on the global scale of child recruitment. The UN produces verified reports of recruitment each year and, while striking in themselves, they likely represent only the tip of the iceberg; access, verification difficulties, how armed groups view the role of girls in their ranks and other issues hamper the identification process.

Looking at the most reliable estimates, it is likely that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of children filling the ranks of armed forces and armed groups today. The UN reported that 56 non-state armed groups and seven state armed forces were recruiting and using children in 2017. 

Most child soldiers are boys

A vast number of boys are recruited, but girls are also routinely exploited.

Of the 299 UN-verified cases of recruitment in Central African Republic in 2017, 34% were girls. In DR Congo, the UN mission reported in 2015 that between 30 and 40% of those recruited in the previous six years were girls.

Meanwhile, 32% of child recruitment cases in Nigeria involved girls in 2017, where there has been an alarming spike in the use of girls as ‘suicide bombers’ by Boko Haram.

The UN report details cases in Syria and elsewhere, while historical conflicts in Nepal and Colombia also saw girls widely recruited.

Children are only recruited to fight

The realities for children recruited into conflict are devastating and go far beyond armed combat.

Children can be exploited as domestic and sexual slaves, used as lookouts in highly dangerous environments, or forced to steal from local communities to provide food and other supplies.

Among 205 girls formerly associated with armed groups in DR Congo we interviewed in 2016, a majority suffered sexual abuse.  

I was often drugged,” one 17-year-old girl told us. “I would wake up and find myself naked. They gave us drugs so that we would not get tired of all of them using us.

Children are always abducted

The abduction of children by parties to conflict is shocking and widely discussed. In Somalia, Al Shabaab forces families to hand over children, while groups in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere routinely abduct children. Schools are regularly targeted too with Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 school girls in Chibok, northern Nigeria in 2014 one case which gained global attention.

But children also choose to join armed groups ‘voluntarily’. However, the extent to which children’s recruitment is genuinely free and informed has always been difficult to establish as broader circumstances such as insecurity, lack of education, economic or other opportunities, personal or community injustice, and ethnic, religious or issues of identity often leave them with little choice.

The Mai Mai were doing bad things all the time,” a 15-year-old girl in DR Congo told us. “They were looting and raping. It became so frightening and impossible to live at home. To protect ourselves, we decided to join them.

Child soldiers are mostly in Africa

As international media covered the deepening war in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s and early 2000s, images of the conflict’s child soldiers were among the most illuminating published.

These striking, arresting portraits helped garner international interest to the crisis, but they set in the public consciousness a very specific view of a ‘child soldier’. One of a boy, often in Africa and regularly pictured with a weapon.

The exploitation of children in armed conflict can be such, but as outlined above, it is often much more nuanced.

A significant number of conflicts where child recruitment prevails are in Africa but according to the Child Soldiers World Index, of 18 conflict situations where cases were recorded in 2016, 50% (in countries like Syria, Iraq, Myanmar and Colombia) were outside the continent.