Children Affected by Armed Conflict/ Child Soldiers

Quick Facts

  • 300,000 children around the world are actively participating in more than 30 armed conflicts.
  • Many children are abducted, coerced, or drugged into being soldiers; some have no other option.
  • Children are often more easily manipulated because of their psychological and physical immaturity, making obedient, cheap, and disposable soldiers

In the last twenty years, children have been more directly affected by armed conflict than at any time throughout history. In previous armed conflicts and wars of the past 80 to 90% of all casualties were adult soldiers, whereas today 80 to 90% of the casualties are civilian women and children. In fact, between 1986 and 1996 alone, over 2 million children were killed in armed conflicts, and over 6 million were seriously injured. It is anticipated the numbers for the following decades will be similar.

Who are Child Soldiers?

A child soldier, as defined by UNICEF, “is any child – girl or boy – under the age of 18, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group, including, but not limited to, combatants, cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than as family members. It includes girls and boys recruited for sexual purposes or forced marriage”[1]. In grave violation of international law more than 300,000 children, some as young as 7 years old, are participating in over 30 armed conflicts throughout the world.

Where are Child Soldiers Today?

Child Soldiers exist today in more than thirty countries around the world. In Myanmar (Burma), the United Nations estimates 70,000 child soldiers, although difficult to verify since the government suspended the research efforts of UNICEF and the ILO. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was known for the systematic use of child soldiers. In Columbia, the UN and HRW estimates 11,000 child soldiers in the armed conflict (military, para-military, and opposition forces). Liberia had an estimated 10,000 child soldiers fought in the final 3 years of the war, and Charles Taylor’s infamous ‘small boys units’ were as young as 5 years old. Sri Lanka (Tamil Tigers) has not only had thousands of child soldiers, they have been known for abductions, suicide bombings, and cyanide tablet control using children. In the Great Lakes region of Northern Uganda there are 20,000 child soldiers alone. These are just a few examples of countries that have used or are currently using child soldiers.

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Vulnerability and Child Soldiers

Child soldiers are used by government forces, rebel groups, and guerilla armies. Children are ‘attractive’ recruits to parties of armed conflicts for many reasons. They are easily manipulated because of their psychological and physical immaturity, making obedient, cheap, and disposable soldiers; they also appear to be less threatening because of their age, and can be used to confuse the adversary and/or to serve as informants. The proliferation of easily operated small arms, combined with long-lasting conflicts, also increases the desire to use child solders.

Children who fight are often poor, illiterate, and from rural zones. Street children, runaway children, as well as children separated from parents, displaced from their homes, and/or living in combat zones are most at risk. Orphans and displaced or refugee children are particularly vulnerable to recruitment as well.

Key factors contributing to the growing involvement of children in many conflict areas include poverty, lack of access to education, unemployment, domestic violence, exploitation, and abuse. Grave economic and social conditions have contributed to children joining armed groups in Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Some children see enlistment as the only means of survival in war-torn regions, others enroll after seeing family members tortured or killed by government forces or armed opposition groups.[2]

However, volunteers are only a small part of the world’s child soldiers – most are recruited forcibly. Children of different ages have been abducted from their homes, schools, or refugee camps in order to be made soldiers. The incidence of the kidnapping of boys and girls by government or opposition forces has significantly increased in recent years. Thousands of children in Northern Uganda continue to flee their homes at night to avoid being abducted by the opposition Lord’s Resistance Army and forced into brutal combat and sexual and domestic servitude.[3]

The practice of kidnapping/forceful recruitment of children has occurred in Burma, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Cote d’Ivoire, and other countries. In Colombia , the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have kidnapped hundreds of children for soldiers, ransom, and as a means of terrorizing civilian populations. In 2002, 215 children were kidnapped and 112 more during the first half of 2003. In early 2003, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-Maoist) conducted large-scale abductions, mostly of school children. In Angola, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) abducted children during the long civil war.[4] In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) thousands of children were abducted and “forced to commit atrocities, of rape and sexual torture, and of constant beatings”.[5]

Impacts on Children

Extreme psychological and emotional trauma, severe battle wounds, loss of hearing, loss of limbs, blindness, rejection by family and community, disease (including HIV/AIDS), violence/abuse, drug addiction, rape and unwanted pregnancy, malnutrition and death, are some of the consequences for child combatants.[6] Several cases have been recorded of children who are prosecuted and executed for the crimes they were forced to commit. There are cases of extrajudicial execution of children as well.

Children are not safe from the impacts of war even after a conflict has ended. Former child combatants often do not receive any special treatment for their reintegration into society. Many former child soldiers do not have access to educational programs, vocational training, family reunification, or even food and shelter that they need to successfully rejoin civilian society. In particular, girl soldiers tend to be overlooked or excluded from demobilization and reintegration processes. As a result, many end up on the street, become involved in crime, or are drawn back into armed conflict.

Protecting Child Soldiers

In September 1997, a United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict was appointed to promote humanitarian, diplomatic and advocacy initiatives to help war-affected children all over the world. Many international organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, YAP International, and others, have been active in the humanitarian and advocacy efforts to stop the use of child soldiers, and in developing the effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs for the former child soldiers.

In recent years, progress has been made in developing a legal and policy framework for protecting children involved in armed conflict. Today, the three key regulations that prohibit the use of child soldiers are: the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict to the Convention of the Rights of the Child (February 2002),[7] the Rome Stature of the International Criminal Court (1998),[8] and Convention 182 of the International Labor Organization (1999).[9]

Get Involved

Anyone interested can make a difference. In order to support children affected by armed conflict, first begin by becoming informed. The next step is raising awareness by educating those close to you, and anywhere you are willing to take this information. You can contact newspapers or other media sources to request press coverage on this topic. You can contact your representatives and ask them to take action and write governments using child soldiers and urge them to stop recruiting anyone under the age 18, to support demobilization and rehabilitation programs for child soldiers, and to provide former child soldiers the counseling and vocational training they need to reintegrate into society. Finally, you can contribute to organizations like YAP International, who are working to stop the use of child soldiers.

Want to learn more?

Check out the following links.


[1] “Children affected by armed conflict: UNICEF actions”, 2002. : p.35[2] ‘Child Soldiers Use 2003: A Briefing for the 4th UN Security Council Open Debate On Children and Armed Conflict’, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. : p.2[3] According to UNICEF about 8,400 children were abducted by LRA between June 2002 and May 2003[4] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict[5] ‘Child Soldiers Use 2003: A Briefing for the 4 th UN Security Council Open Debate On Children and Armed Conflict’, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. : p.2[6] Human Rights Watch
[7] The Optional Protocol to the CRC on children in armed conflict

• Requires states to “take all feasible measures” to ensure that members of their armed forces under the age of 18 years do not participate in hostilities;

• Prohibits the conscription of anyone under the age of 18 into the armed forces

• Requires states to raise the age of voluntary recruitment from 15 and to deposit a binding declaration of the minimum age for recruitment into its armed forces; and

• Prohibits the recruitment or use in hostilities of children under the age of 18 by rebel or other non-governmental armed groups, and requires states to criminalize such practices.

[8] Under the Rome Stature of ICC recruitment of children under the age of 15 by any armed group defines as a war crime
[9] Convention 182 relates child soldiering to the worst forms of child labor and prohibit both forced and compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 for use in armed conflict.