Who are child soldiers?

Child soldiers are children (under 18) who are used for military purposes.

Some child soldiers are used for fighting – they’re forced to take part in wars and conflicts, forced to kill, and commit other acts of violence. Some are forced to act as suicide bombers. Some join ‘voluntarily’, driven by poverty, sense of duty, or circumstance.  

Other children are used as cooks, porters, messengers, informants, spies or anything their commanders want them to do. Child soldiers are sometimes sexually abused.

Child soldiers can be both boys and girls. Whilst some may be in their late teens, others are as young as four years old.

Take action now to stop the use of child soldiers.

Where are there child soldiers?

The use of boys and girls for military purposes violates their human rights. Those who exploit children often try to hide their activities. So it can be difficult to know exactly where child soldiers are used, and how many there are in the world. 

Our current work focuses on ending the use of child soldiers in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Thailand, the UK and Yemen.

The UN Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict includes a “list of shame”, which identifies armed forces and groups that recruit and use children. When parties are added to the list, they are put under increased scrutiny and may be subject to punitive measures. The 2016 list includes parties which recruit and use children in these conflicts, shown in red in the map below: 

  • Afghanistan
  • Central African Republic
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Iraq
  • Mali
  • Myanmar
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan
  • Sudan
  • Syria
  • Yemen
  • Colombia
  • Nigeria
  • Philippines

In addition to parties formally listed in this report, we are concerned about children being recruited and used in India, Pakistan, Israel/State of Palestine, Libya, Philippines and Thailand. These countries are shown above in orange.

Why are children used in wars and conflict?

Children are more compliant and easy to manipulate than adults. It’s easier to abduct children or force them into becoming a soldier.

Children often get separated from their parents during the chaos of conflict and thus fall prey to all kinds of abuses, including recruitment by armed groups and forces. Refugee children can be particularly vulnerable.

Not all children are abducted. Some children who feel they don’t have any other choices in life may ‘volunteer’ to join a country’s armed forces or an armed group.

Often these children live in poverty; have little or no access to education; feel compelled to financially support their family; or lack the support of a parent or guardian.

Read about girl soldiers in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Who recruits and uses child soldiers?

Child soldiers are recruited and used by both official government armed forces and armed groups around the world.

Today, most state armed forces worldwide only recruit adults (from age 18). But some countries still recruit under-18s – for example the UK, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

Although it’s difficult to obtain exact numbers, the UN Secretary-General’s 2016 report lists 58 parties to conflict around the world (7 government security forces, 51 non-state armed groups) that recruit and use children. They include for example ‘the Islamic State’ group in Iraq and Syria, the Mai-Mai Nyatura in Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Find out what you can do to stop the use of child soldiers.