London, 27 June 2018 - The use of child soldiers continues unabated by at least 56 armed groups and seven state forces across the world, a United Nations report released today has revealed.

As humanitarian crises deepen amid conflicts from Syria and Afghanistan, to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, the protection of children is often callously ignored.

UN Secretary-General (UNSG) António Guterres’ latest Children and Armed Conflict Report names warring parties in 14 countries as guilty of more than 21,000 ‘grave violations’ of child rights, on the so-called ‘list of shame’.

However, rights groups including Child Soldiers International have criticised the list for being non-exhaustive and highly politicised.

Thousands of children were killed, maimed, sexually assaulted and forced to fight by armed groups and state forces in 2017. Millions are displaced and struggling for survival, their homes, communities, schools and healthcare facilities destroyed. 

The report documents thousands of cases of abduction, including over 1,600 by Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab alone in the past year.

While many children are forcibly recruited, thousands more are unable to resist joining fighting forces due to insecurity, socio-economic and cultural pressures.

Child Soldiers International’s extensive 2017 report from DRC – where three armed groups have been added to the UNSG’s report - revealed the multiple factors which push girls to join armed groups. 

“We heard that we could get money there,” one 15-year-old girl said. “I went because I wanted to get enough money to go back to school.”

Described as a ‘devastating year’ for the country’s children, the 2018 report details 1,049 new cases of recruitment in DRC – almost one-third joining before their 15th birthday.

In 2018, our work with community groups in Central African Republic aimed at preventing child recruitment showed that self-defence is another common reason to join. The UNSG’s report says recruitment of children quadrupled in 2017 compared to 2016 with 196 boys and 103 girls affected.

“You had to protect yourself,” one community member told us. “[The Séléka armed group] came to rape even old women like me …how do you expect these children to react?”

Boko Haram’s shocking campaign of using children as suicide bombers has become a ‘worrying trend’ according to the report, with 146 cases documented in Nigeria and 57 in Cameroon – almost three-quarters of those used were girls.

The UNSG's annual report is essential in holding the worst perpetrators of child rights violations in conflict accountable.

However, Child Soldiers International believes that the decision since 2017 to split the report’s ‘list of shame’ into two – those who have taken positive steps during the reporting period and those who haven’t – complicates matters. Determining whether sufficient steps have been taken is too open for interpretation, making the listing process vulnerable to political manipulation.

Naming the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for the second consecutive year is welcomed. It is included as one of 14 parties said to be making progress - but the report shows it was responsible for killing and maiming 670 children and responsible for 19 attacks on schools in 2017 yet has been removed completely from the list for ‘attacks on schools and hospitals’.

To maintain the report’s integrity, the UNSG should revert to one single list and note any progress made in the main report. 

All parties, regardless of political standing or geography, must be listed if they continue to commit grave violations against children.

Despite the troubling overall trends, some notable progress has been made. Four parties were de-listed from this year’s report – including the Colombian rebel group FARC and Sudan’s government security forces for child recruitment. The report says that over 10,000 children were formally released from armed forces and groups during 2017 and additionally 'an unknown number left such entities through informal pathways'. UNICEF helped facilitate the release of hundreds of children from armed groups in South Sudan this year, while UN Actions Plans signed with the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria in 2017 among others, show that positive change is possible.

If such progress is to be sustained, outlawing and eradicating child recruitment is just the beginning. It is paramount that the UN and international community prioritise and adequately fund the reintegration of children returning from conflict to ensure they can regain their place in society and prosper in their communities.

Isabelle Guitard, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International, said: “Children continue to suffer shocking levels of abuse in today’s global conflicts. As the report shows, the persistent targeting and recruitment of children by armed groups and forces is still alarmingly prevalent and protecting boys and girls in conflict must be prioritised by the international community and governments.

“It is paramount that the UN Secretary-General is not swayed by political motives and that the report names all parties guilty of abuses against children. A failure to properly name all those known to commit grave violations is an affront to the millions of children who today remain trapped in conflict zones, fearful of attack or under the control of armed groups and forces.”