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Child soldiers

Children are particularly vulnerable in times of conflict. Here we look at the global issue of the recruitment and use of child soldiers and what is being done to tackle the problem.

What is a child soldier?

Any girl or boy below the age of 18 who is recruited or used by an armed force or armed group, in any capacity.

A child soldier is not just someone who is involved in fighting. They can also be those in other roles such as cooks, porters, messengers, human shields, spies, suicide bombers or those used for sexual exploitation. It includes children recruited and trained for military purposes, but not used in war.

Who recruits child soldiers?

Children are recruited all over the world by state armed forces and armed groups outside government control.

Non-state armed groups are more likely than states to use children in armed conflict. This makes the problem more difficult to tackle as these groups are less visible and harder to negotiate with.

Why do children become child soldiers?

Children become soldiers in different ways. Some are forcibly recruited. They may be abducted, threatened or coerced into joining, while others are enticed with money, drugs or in other ways.

In many cases, children choose to join as a result of economic or social pressures. Others join armed forces to fight for a cause that they or their family support, often with little clear understanding of the implications of their decision.

Being poor, displaced, separated from their families or living in a combat zone can make children particularly vulnerable to being recruited.

Armed groups target children for several reasons. They are easier to manipulate, they don’t need much food and they don’t have a highly developed sense of danger.

What happens to child soldiers?

Some children will be trained for and participate in armed combat, while others will be given a supporting role. In almost all cases child soldiers will not have access to formal education.

A number of former child combatants from the Central African Republic have reported that they were forced to perform horrific acts, such as killing their own parents as a form of initiation into the armed group. It is thought that this initiation hardens them to brutality and breaks the bonds with their community, making it difficult to return.

How many child soldiers are there?

There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today in at least 20 countries.

About 40 % of child soldiers are girls, who are often used as sex slaves and taken as "wives" by male fighters.

Where are child soldiers recruited?

The problems of child soldiers are most severe in Africa - particularly in Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, it is an issue in any part of the world where there is conflict.

In 2014, more than 9000 children were reported to have been recruited to fight on both sides in South Sudan’s civil war.

By 2016, up to 10,000 children had been enslaved and used as fighters and human shields by rival militias in the Central African Republic since the unrest began in 2013.

What’s being done to end the practice of recruiting child soldiers?

In the past two decades, thousands of boys and girls have been freed as a result of action plans mandated by the United Nations Security Council.

Launched in March 2014, the campaign Children, Not Soldiers is working to galvanise support to end and prevent recruitment of children by national security forces in conflict. It is particularly focused on Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, all of which have signed UN Action Plans.

Colombia's government and leftist FARC rebels agreed in June 2016 to a roadmap for children under 15 to leave guerilla encampments and reintegrate into society. This formed part of negotiations aimed at ending Latin America's longest war.

Efforts are being made to support the release of children in these countries to civilian life and to help reintegrate them, as well as plans to prevent future recruitment of children.

Measures are being taken around the world to prevent children becoming soldiers in the future. It is important to establish and enforce 18 as the minimum age for recruitment.

The majority of states have already done this and many non-state groups have done so too. International political efforts continue to encourage all groups to do likewise.

How can child soldiers be helped?

Many child soldiers end up desensitised to violence, which can psychologically damage them. Many are traumatised by what they have been forced to do or have witnessed. Children need to undergo reintegration programmes to help them return to civilian life.

Girls face the additional difficulty of social stigma attached to the belief they have been engaged in sexual activity.

Most child soldiers have missed out on school and need additional education in order to feed themselves and make a more stable life for themselves.

There are various organisations such as War Child and Child Soldiers International who are dedicated to tackling the problem through campaigning and raising awareness, as well as rescuing and rehabilitating child soldiers.

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