Child Soldiers

Read this chapter to learn about the phenomenon of child soldiers in wars around the world. Why are children are recruited as soldiers, and how does it impact their human rights?


The use of children in warfare is against international legislation that protects the rights of children. Yet it still remains a persistent issue in conflict-torn areas of the world. Children are used in direct combat, support roles like cooks and messengers, and as suicide bombers, to name a few duties – as child soldiers. International social work can take on roles in protecting these children and combatting their recruitment and abuse.


Child Soldier: A person under the age of 18 recruited either voluntarily or by force to participate in an armed forces group in any capacity

Child Soldiers

A child soldier or a child associated with an armed force group, according to the Paris Principles in 2007, is any person, 18 years of age or younger, who is or has been recruited or used by an armed group in any capacity (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 2007). The role of children in armed forces conflict is often direct combat, but they also act as spies, cooks, messengers, porters, and sex slaves among other roles (Child Soldiers International, 2016a; Bleasdale, 2013; United Nations, n.d.; UNICEF, 2007). The number of children involved in armed conflicts has risen 159% since 2012, with almost 30,000 verified cases of recruitment in 17 countries around the globe (Child Soldiers International, 2019).

Children are recruited for armed forces conflicts because they are often easier to manipulate and more obedient than adults, do not have a developed sense of danger, and do not require many resources to maintain (Child Soldiers International, 2016a; Dudenhoefer, 2016; Their World, 2016). Some children are forcibly recruited by being born into militant groups or by their families and communities being overcome by militant groups (Dudenhoefer, 2016; Their World, 2016). Children who are forced are often abducted, coerced, or abused into submission and participation (Dudenhoefer, 2016; Singer, 2005; Their World, 2016).

Other children “voluntarily” join. Reasons children choose to join militant groups may be: their families identify with a side of the conflict and they feel they are honoring their families and their countries by choosing to fight; a survival tactic where militant groups promise safety and a sense of family; they are promised some type of pay off; or they have a sense of vengeance for lived inequalities that they feel war can correct (Dudenhoefer, 2016; Singer, 2005; Their World, 2016). Children who voluntarily join militant groups often do not have a full understanding of the consequences of joining, or of the severity and danger of their tasks, which is also a reason they are recruited, as highlighted above. Therefore, though they may not have needed to be forced into submission, aside from not being adults able to consent, their choice in participation is not fully-informed and therefore not really voluntary.

Roles of Child Soldiers

As previously mentioned, child soldiers can take on a number of roles in armed conflicts and are recruited as young as the age of 8 (Bleasdale, 2013; Singer, 2005; United Nations, n.d.). Many of them will be used in direct combat, as early as the age of 10, because modern assault rifles are easily managed by small children making child soldiers as useful and deadly in combat as adult soldiers (Dudenhoefer, 2016). Besides combat, common roles for child soldiers are patrolling and surveillance, scouting or spying, and prisoner guard (Singer, 2005). These traditional soldier roles are often taken on by boys more often than girls. Not surprisingly, given what we know about human and sex trafficking worldwide, girls who are recruited into armed conflict are more often used as sex slaves (United Nations, 2013; United Nations, n.d.).

The involvement of girls in armed conflict more than quadrupled between 2017 and 2018, growing from 216 to 893 reported cases (Child Soldiers International, 2019). Former child soldiers who had been rescued reported having to commit horrific acts, such as killing their own parents, as a form of initiation and showing allegiance; others have reported having to participate in killing war captives, or hurting other child soldiers (Klasen, Reissmann, Voss, & Okello, 2015; Their World, 2016; Thomason, 2016). Child soldiers who survive war are left traumatized, vulnerable to re-recruitment, and sometimes re-victimized by being detained and punished for involvement in war crimes (Klasen, et al., 2015; United Nations, 2018).

Child Soldiers of the World

The United Nations’ Secretary-General releases an annual report on children in armed conflict, which includes a “Name and Shame” list of the countries participating in child soldier recruitment. The 2017 report highlighted violations by 19 countries—stating there were over 6,000 violations by government forces and over 15,000 by non-state armed force organizations worldwide (United Nations, 2018).

Child Soldiers International’s Annual Report (2018) also shed light on some startling statistics about child soldiers worldwide:

  1.  Since 2016, child soldiers have participated in at least 18 conflicts around the world;
  2.  Over 19,000 children have been recruited into armed forces in South Sudan alone just in the past four years;
  3.  In 2017 alone, there were 203 reports of children being used as suicide bombers in Cameroon and Nigeria;
  4.  Approximately 14,000 children have been recruited into armed groups in the Central African Republic over the past six years; and
  5.  Approximately 240 million children live in countries affected by ongoing conflict, putting them at risk of recruitment into child soldier roles. While most of the countries highlighted are in the Eastern hemisphere, child soldiers have also been recruited and used in the Western hemisphere in Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru since the 1990s (Singer, 2005).

International Legislation

International efforts at protecting the rights of children started in 1924 with the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child was just five Articles adopted by the League of Nations, stating that “mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give, declare and accept it as their duty that, beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed” (League of Nations, 1924, paragraph 1).

Following this legislation, the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted in 1959, was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and consisted of 10 principles to ensure for all children that “he [and she] may have a happy childhood and enjoy for his [and her] own good and for the good of society the rights and freedoms herein set forth” (United Nations, 1959, The General Assembly). Following these short declarations, in 1989 a 54-Article long Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified with thorough explanations of who is considered a child and the responsibilities of the state to ensure protection and education to children in their varying cultural and political contexts (United Nations, 1989). These three documents laid the framework for:

  • The 1997 Cape Town Principles and Best Practices on the Prevention of Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa,
  • The 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict,
  • The 2007 Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups,
  • The 2009 list of the Six Grave Violations Against Children During Armed Conflict, and
  • Many resolutions from the United Nations written to further expand the responsibility and efforts of citizens and governments on an international level to intervene in and prevent the recruitment of child soldiers, protect the rights of children, and to react to the engagement of children in warfare.

(United Nations, 2002; United Nations, 2013; UNICEF, 1997; UNICEF 2007)

The main factor that makes legislation effective is the consequences of violation. These documents, however, are declarations, proclamations, conventions, and statements of best practices. Therefore, only countries who are members of the United Nations, sign the optional protocol, and subscribe to the ideas and articles presented in the other documents are expected to abide by them. Within that, each governing body is assigned the responsibility of ensuring their enactment and establishing consequences of violations. This is also an issue with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as there is no clear authority given to the United Nations or any other member state to interfere or persecute violations (Dolinger, 2016).

While countries may be highlighted by human rights watch organizations, “shamed” by the UN secretary general, or other countries may refuse to engage in trade with them, there are rarely any concrete and legal consequences unless initiated and handed out by the governing state. Some countries, like the United States, have passed legislation like the 2007 and 2017 Child Soldiers Prevention Acts, in which providing U.S. military assistance to countries actively using child soldiers is prohibited except in cases where a president of the United States waives the prohibition for national security reasons. Unfortunately, as of 2016, the president had issued a waiver in 26 of 33 cases where the Child Soldiers Prevention Act would have been utilized (Human Rights Watch, 2016).

Ending the Use of Child Soldiers

Engagement with the armed forces using child soldiers resulted in the formal release of over 10,000 child soldiers in 2017, with an unknown number being released through informal pathways (United Nations, 2018). Additionally, even countries within the UN’s report, like Afghanistan and Sudan, began enacting legislation that resulted in a decrease in recruitment, despite prevalence of child soldiers in general in these regions (United Nations, 2018). Therefore, despite startling numbers and prevalence of child soldiers, work is being done that is effective, and the number of child soldiers since the enactment of The Paris Principles and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict has steadily been on the decline and the number of countries adopting legislation to protect children has steadily been growing (United Nations, 2018).

The United Nations highlights the need to continue to engage and collaborate with countries worldwide to expand legislation and support efforts to end child engagement in warfare (United Nations, 2018). Preventing recruitment is also an important element through not only within-borders legislation, but across-borders legislation to prevent children from crossing borders for engagement with warfare. Similarly, it is important to interrupt the cycles that allow recruitment of child soldiers–educational inequality/lack of access to education, poverty, and political instability. Post-war, child soldiers experience physical injuries and disabilities, loss of family and homelessness, long-term memories of trauma and war, guilt or shame, stigma and rejection, and social marginalization (Denov, 2010). Therefore, ending the re-victimization or re-recruitment of these children by detaining and punishing them post-war engagement for their affiliations with militant groups is an imperative step toward re-integration and healing of children who have been used as child soldiers. They need restorative, therapeutic efforts to be made toward their resocialization.

All of this in mind bears the question of what social workers, other practitioners and policymakers can do to eliminate the use of child soldiers. A lot of these efforts begin with policy work–international and national policy, local policy, and ensuring divestment from intentional and unintentional support of countries using child soldiers. The trauma and horrors of war that the children have witnessed has to be addressed for successful reintegration, which lends itself to the crux of social work–mental healthcare, interpersonal relationship building, trauma care, and addressing stable family and housing needs. Assistance with accessing education and breaking cycles of poverty is also imperative to prevent child recruitment into warfare. Child Soldiers International, War Child, and UNICEF are all organizations working toward addressing trauma and reintegrating children into safe communities post-war engagement (Borgen Project, 2017).

Now, let’s shift gears and turn to a case study.


Ateef is a 12-year old boy from South Sudan whose family has always lived outside of Yambio. His father and two older brothers have been soldiers in a rebel military group for as long as he can remember. Wanting to emulate the leadership and protective characteristics of the other men in his family, Ateef voluntarily begins training as a child soldier. He begins engagement with the army by being a messenger between stationed groups, and soon begins training on use of weapons.

By the age of 13, Ateef has been trained in the use of assault rifles and is a frontlines combat fighter. He fights for two years before the United Nations and South Sudan’s People Defence Force negotiate for the release of hundreds of children from the armed forces.

Ateef is now 15 years old, struggles with nightmares about the wars he participated in, and faces stigma from the community he has been placed in. He has been assigned a case worker who helps him with his school work and has enrolled him in a program for him to learn tradesmen skills, but he often wonders what has become of his father and brothers still involved in the army, and if he will ever be reunited with them.

Summary of Key Points

  • Child soldiers have been utilized all over the globe and thousands of violations of international declarations occur every year. These violations are easiest to track through the United Nation’s Secretary-General’s report.

  • The most important efforts to decrease and eliminate the use of child soldiers lie in getting more countries and non-state sanctioned military organizations on board with the Children, Not Soldiers campaigns and to pledge to prohibit military involvement for anyone under the age of 18.

Source: Jacquelyn Meshelemiah,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.

Last modified: Monday, September 13, 2021, 11:20 AM