Military recruitment of children is gradually being outlawed, but 50 countries still allow it. Many non-state armed groups also recruit children.

Every year, the UN Secretary-General publishes a “list of shame” showing which state armed forces and non-state armed groups recruit and use children.

On the 2016 list are the armed forces of seven countries (Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen). However, at least 43 state armed forces train children for armed conflict but do not normally use them in this way until they turn 18.

51 non-state armed groups appear on the list for the same reason. They include the Mai-Mai Nyatura in Democratic Republic of Congo and the Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar, for example. The Taliban in Afghanistan and ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria use children on a large scale, including for suicide bombings.

The UN's 2016 child recruitment list

The map below shows (in red) the countries where armed forces or groups recruit children, according to the UN’s list of shame in 2016. They 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 also recruit children in India Pakistan, Israel/State of Palestine, Libya, Philippines and Thailand. These countries are shown above in orange. The list is probably not complete, since commanders who use children often try to escape notice.

Global recognition of a need for a Straight-18 standard

The good news is that most states and some non-state armed groups now recognise the harm that recruiting children causes.

Between 2001 and 2016, the number of countries restricting their military to adults has grown from 83 to 126, which is 71 per cent 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 so-called ‘Straight 18’ standard is slowly becoming the norm: no recruitment of anyone under the age of 18.

The bad news is that some armed forces and groups still insist that they need children to fill their ranks.

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.

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.

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

Enlistment ages around the world

The maps below show the minimum legal enlistment ages around the world. The first map shows the state of progress in 2001, the second is for 2016. Most of Europe and Africa have now adopted the Straight 18 standard (in green), and a number of states that used to enlist from age 16 have raised their age of recruitment to 17 (in orange).




Note that these two maps do not show where children are being recruited by non-state armed groups.

They also do not show cadet forces or military schools, which are common around the world. For example, Russia only allows enlistment from age 18, via compulsory military service (conscription), but operates a system of military schools training children in combat tactics and the use of firearms.

Find out more:

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Main sources

The data used for these maps come from the following sources:

States parties’ reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee’s Concluding Observations, and States parties’ binding Declarations on the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict:

UN Secretary-General’s Report on Children and Armed Conflict (2002 and 2016):

Child Soldiers International, Louder than words: An agenda for action to end state use of armed forces, (London: 2012):

Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers Global Report: 2001, (London: 2001):

Photo © Child Soldiers International