In the United Kingdom we are working for an increase in the minimum age of enlistment from 16 to 18 years. The UK is the only country in Europe that still recruits 16-year-olds, our campaign is making the case for change.

Background

A quarter of new British army recruits are aged 16 or 17. In 2018, the army enlisted 1,690 (26%) minors, 920 of whom were aged 16.  

Globally, at least 46 countries still recruit under-18s into their armed forces and 17 of these still recruit 16-year-old children. Other countries where 16-year-olds can join the armed forces include Pakistan, El Salvador, Zambia, Cuba and Tonga. The UK is the only European country which enlists at 16.

Of the G7 states, only two – Japan and Italy – no longer rely on children to staff their armed forces.

We believe that all armed forces should adopt a ‘Straight-18’ policy for military recruitment.

We recognise there are striking differences between under-18s joining armed forces in countries like the UK, Germany, the US and Canada compared to the exploitation of children by armed groups and forces in global conflict situations.

However, we firmly believe that worldwide efforts to stop child recruitment in other conflicts are undermined when the world’s most powerful states do not commit to this themselves.

The issue

British army recruits are not normally sent to war until they turn 18 (although at least 22 under-age soldiers were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2010), but they are sought for frontline roles, particularly the infantry, which suffers more fatalities in warfare than any other part of the armed forces.

Research by Child Soldiers International found that, during the war in Afghanistan, British soldiers who had joined at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die on deployment than adult recruits.

Studies have shown that adolescents in the British army can have higher rates of mental health and behavioural problems than both older recruits and their civilian peers and are more likely to be injured during training. The education they are offered is at a lower standard than is found in a local college. One third of all minors who enlist in the army drop out of training.

Meanwhile, girls can experience sexual harassment and 15% of all servicewomen surveyed in the Army Sexual Harassment Survey 2018 said they suffered sexual harassment in the past year. The survey also showed that 18% of female junior soldiers experienced a ‘particularly upsetting experience’.

A common assumption is that the armed forces reduce antisocial behaviour in young people, but enlisting has been shown to increase the risk of violent offending and drug-related offences across the age range.

The armed forces intentionally target teenagers from working-class communities particularly for low-skilled, low-paid, high-risk jobs. In 2018, we revealed that the British army’s latest recruitment campaign – This Is Belonging – is disproportionately aimed at children from lower social-economic backgrounds. 

Recruiting from age 16 is a policy choice, not a necessity. In most countries, only adult enlistment is allowed, from age 18, and we have shown that the UK could do the same and still staff its armed forces effectively.

72% of the public believe the army should raise the enlistment age to 18, that’s according to a nationwide ICM poll commissioned by Child Soldiers International and other organisations in July 2018. All four Children’s Commissioners of the UK agree that the recruitment age should be raised, as do child rights and welfare organisations, parliamentarians, church groups, the UN, many veterans, and many young people themselves.

The policy of recruiting at 16 is at odds with international human rights legislation. The coercive nature of military training violates the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. In addition, UNICEF has called on all states to adopt a ‘Straight-18’ policy for military recruitment.

Our impact

We work with parliamentarians across the political spectrum to challenge the MoD’s policy of recruiting under-18s. We also work with campaigners and veterans to raise public awareness and provide would-be recruits and their families with accurate information about enlistment.

We respond to government papers and statements on the recruitment of junior soldiers. In September 2017, we provided supporting evidence to the Scottish National Party’s youth wing as they successfully petitioned the party to campaign on the issue.

Our campaign is supported by research into army recruitment practices and their evidenced impact on young people, and the experiences of under-18 recruits during training and once they leave the armed forces. Our work has often led to national media coverage of the problem. Our May 2018 report, Why 18 Matters, analyses the recruitment policies of the UK and a dozen other armed forces that recruit under-18s, and presents the case for setting 18 as the global minimum enlistment age.

In January 2018, we joined Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts at an event in Westminster to discuss the need for a change in recruitment policy and were joined by several politicians, campaigners and veterans.

You can view all our UK publications and resources here.