The use of children as soldiers in armed conflict is among the most morally repugnant practices in the world.
The military use of children takes three distinct forms: children can take direct part in combat as child soldiers; they can be used in support roles, such as spies, messengers, lookouts; or they can be used for political advantage as human shields and in propaganda.
Children are combatants in nearly three-quarters of the world's conflicts and have posed difficult dilemmas for the professional armies they confront, including the United States' and other European armed forces. Yet, moral reasons aside, compelling strategic arguments exist for limiting the use of child soldiers: When conflicts involving children end, the prospects for a lasting peace are hurt by large populations of psychologically scarred, demobilized child soldiers. Parts of Africa, Asia, and South America risk long-term instability as generations of youth are sucked into ongoing wars.
Definition of Key Terms:
What is a child soldier?
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) defines child soldiers as "any child—boy or girl—under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity." This age limit was first fixed in 2002 by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977, the legal age to join an army or take part in an armed conflict was only 15. Nevertheless, nearly 80 percent of conflicts involving child soldiers include combatants below the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven or eight.
For centuries children have been used as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts. Children are easy to manipulate and in combat children can be daring and tenacious, particularly when under the influence of drugs or when compelled by political or religious zeal. Child units can greatly add to confusion on battlefields, slowing opposing forces' progress. Children have also been used as scouts, messengers, minesweepers, bomb-makers, and suicide bombers. About 30 percent of armed groups using children include girls. In addition to fighting, girls are often subjected to sexual abuse, and in some cases are taken as mistresses by army leaders.
Child soldiers are not only an African or Asian phenomenon; in Europe especially in the UK you can join the army at age 15 and seven months and in the Iraq War 15 17-year-old soldiers fought for the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the USA sent nearly 60 soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan that were under 18 years old.
Major Countries Involved:
Democratic Republic of Congo:
Thousands of children serve in the military and in various rebel militias. In the Second Congo War, more than 30,000 children were fighting with various parties in the conflict. Nowadays, children continue to be recruited and used by numerous armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A third of these are girls and are often used as ‘wives’ and sexually abused by their commanders and other soldiers.
According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 70,000 boys serve in Myanmar's national army, with children as young as 11 forcibly recruited off the streets.
Myanmar’s internal armed conflicts have been marked by severe human rights violations, attacks against civilians, and mass displacement, with children widely used by both state armed forces and armed groups. Despite a minimum enlistment age of 18, large numbers of boys have been recruited, often forcibly, into the national army.
In India, volunteers can join the navy at the age of 16 and a half and the air force at the age of 17. These soldiers are not deployed until after training at which they are 18 years or older.
Across central India, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and other armed groups are waging an insurgency aimed at overthrowing the government. Amid the violence, armed groups have abducted and recruited children as soldiers, sexually abused them, and attacked schools with landmines and explosive devices.
After decades of violent conflict, severe poverty and a lack of other opportunities have driven children into the fighting on all sides. Militias recruited thousands of child soldiers during the Afghan Civil War and many are still fighting now, for the Taliban. They are taking part in hostilities, risk being killed, injured or sexually abused, and have been used as suicide bombers.
Years of armed violence in southern Thailand has had a huge impact on children. They have been killed in indiscriminate attacks, recruited, used by military groups outside government control, and in some cases by self-defence militias associated with the government. Armed groups have attacked schools and killed teachers, while the Thai military have occupied schools, undermining children’s right to education. Child Soldiers International has documented the recruitment and use of children by both sides of the insurgency.
In 2005, an estimated 11,000 children were involved with left-wing guerrillas or right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, such as the FARC or ELN. In 2008, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that the Colombian government's forces did not officially recruit children. The legal age for both them has been set at 18. However, students were allowed to enroll as cadets in military secondary schools and 16- or 17-year-olds could enter the air force or national army training programs, respectively.
The United Kingdom:
In 2015, almost one in four new recruits into the British army was a child under the age of 18. They are targeted for frontline combat roles, such as the infantry, which suffers more fatalities than any other part of the armed forces. Children in the army have higher rates of mental health and addiction problems and receive lower standards of education than their civilian peers.