In the United Kingdom we are working for a rise in the minimum enlistment age from 16 to 18 years.

Case study

Keith was 15 when he joined the British army in 1989, using his older brother’s birth certificate, to escape from abuse in a care home. Deployed to Kuwait a year later and the Balkans in the late 1990s, Keith left the Army after 11 years. When he left the army after 11 years, he slept rough in London.

Kids need to be educated about consequences of signing up. They should be told in schools, ‘This is not fame and glory. You’re not going to have a great time. It might be an adventure, but it’s a costly adventure. You could be home in a box six weeks later.

The issue

In 2015 almost one in four new recruits into the British army were children under the age of 18. They are targeted for frontline combat roles, such as the infantry, which suffers more fatalities than any other part of the armed forces. Children in the army have higher rates of mental health and addiction problems and receive lower standards of education than their civilian peers. They can also be made to stay in the army up to two years longer than adult recruits.

Our impact

After advocacy by Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatch, in 2011 the UK government allowed child recruits a legal right of discharge, but it remains the case that as soon as a child recruit reaches 18, he or she is not allowed to leave for the following four years.

The good news is that the number of children enlisting annually has been falling and more than three quarters of the British public now support raising the minimum enlistment age to 18 years.

What we’ll do next

Child Soldiers International is currently taking legal action against the UK Ministry of Defence concerning children’s terms of service in the British army, which we believe are unlawful. If our judicial review is successful then the government will no longer be able to make child recruits serve for longer than adult recruits, as is the case now. Meanwhile, our campaign to see a rise in the enlistment age to 18 continues and now enjoys wide support.


The UK is one of fewer than 20 countries worldwide which still allows recruitment from age 16 – the lowest age permissible under international law. The British armed forces, and Army in particular, have traditionally relied heavily on children to fill non-technical, frontline roles. In 2001, almost half of British army recruits – 44 per cent – were children. The proportion of child recruits has since declined and they are no longer routinely sent to fight, but they remain at risk of long-term harm as a consequence of their premature enlistment. 

Get involved

Support for the campaign is building all the time, so now is a great time to get involved by writing to your MP . You can find your MP and write to them here.


  • Write a short letter, calling on the Defence Secretary to raise the enlistment age to 18 and giving your reasons why.
  • If it’s helpful, you can draw on this two-page parliamentary briefing.
  • In your message, include the link to the briefing, so that your MP or their staff can familiarise themselves with the case for change.

Find out more

Photo: Army recruiters at a county fair, UK © Carol Steel 2016