The recruitment of children by armed groups and forces remains one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. 

In 2017, more than 240 million children around the world were living in countries affected by conflict. Many of them face violence, displacement, hunger and exploitation by armed forces and groups.  

The scope and scale of exploitation of children is startling. Boko Haram’s attacks continue across the Lake Chad Basin region, where the group has used an alarming number of children as “suicide bombers”: 203 cases in Nigeria and Cameroon were verified in 2017.

More than 3,000 cases of recruitment by armed groups in DR Congo were reported in 2017. At least 19,000 children are believed to be participating in the conflict in South Sudan, and we are seeing the recruitment of children spike in the Middle East.

Every year, the UN Secretary-General publishes the Children and Armed Conflict report which details grave violations committed against children in conflict during the previous 12 months. 

The 2018 release, which documents abuses during 2017, shows that the UN verified more than 21,000 grave violations of children's rights around the world, including their recruitment and use in armed conflict. 

At the end of the report, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres includes an annex - the 'list of shame' - naming the specific armed groups and state forces guilty of the violations. 

Since the 2017 report, the list has been split in two – those who have taken positive steps during the reporting period to end violations and those who haven’t.

On the 2018 list for the recruitment and use of children are the armed forces of seven countries (AfghanistanMyanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).

In addition, 56 non-state armed groups appear on the 2018 list for the recruitment and use of children. They include the Mai-Mai Nyatura in Democratic Republic of Congo, the so-called Islamic State, Somalia's Al-Shabaab and the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar

According to the report, warring parties in 14 countries are guilty of recruiting and using children in conflict. The countries are: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. 

In addition to countries on the UN list, non-state armed groups are reported to recruit children in India, Pakistan, Israel/State of Palestine, Libya, and Thailand. There are likely several other examples but it is often difficult to verify cases.

Moreover, while many have attempted to give figures on the total number of child soldiers in the world today it is impossible to provide an accurate global figure. We believe that the number of boys and girls currently being exploited by armed groups and forces number in the tens of thousands.  

Child Soldiers World Index 

In 2018 we launched the Child Soldiers World Index - the first online global data hub on child recruitment and use.

Covering all 197 UN Members States, the World Index includes authoritative data on national laws, policies and child recruitment practices worldwide.

Since the adoption of OPAC - the international child soldier treaty - in 2000, 167 states have now banned the use of children in armed conflict. The Central African Republic was the latest country to agree to the treaty in September 2017. 

Drawing on first-hand research, information from UN reports and other highly respected NGO and media sources, the World Index maps the global picture on child recruitment. It also plots key developments in international policies and treaties and documents the international criminal cases relating to the recruitment and use of children.

A Straight-18 standard

The UN reports and many debates focus on the exploitation of children in conflict by armed groups and forces. We recognise this as a huge area to address and our projects focus on several countries where children are used in hostilities, but we also firmly believe that all state armed forces around the world must adopt a 'Straight-18' standard for military recruitment, whether or not they are involved in armed conflict.

The Child Soldiers World Index shows that state armed forces in at least 46 countries continue to enlist under-18s. 

States that still allow child recruitment tend to be larger and wealthier than average, and they spend more on their military. For example, Australia, China, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the USA allow enlistment from age 17. Brazil, Canada, and the UK are among the small handful of countries that set the bar even lower, at age 16. The UK is the only European country which allows 16-year-olds to join its armed forces. 

In fact, whereas most African countries (with some stark exceptions) have now set the Straight-18 standard in law, only two of the G7 – the world’s largest economies – have done the same (Italy and Japan). Worldwide efforts to stop the recruitment of children is undermined when the world’s most powerful states do not commit to this themselves.

In May 2018, we published a new report, Why 18 Matters, analysing the recruitment practices of more than a dozen economically-developed nations who recruit children aged 16 and 17 and the negative physical and psychological impact early recruitment and training can have on them. 

Between 2001 and 2016, the number of countries restricting their military to adults grew from 83 to 126, which is 71% of states with armed forces. At least 60 non-state armed groups have also committed to stop or reduce their recruitment of children. Thanks to this progress, combined with some strengthening of international law, the 'Straight 18’ standard is slowly becoming the norm: no recruitment of anyone under the age of 18.

Child Soldiers International works for a worldwide ban on all recruitment of children for any military purpose.

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