Hundreds of thousands of children are used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. Many children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities or out of a feeling of revenge.
Combat and support roles
In many conflicts children take direct part in combat. However, their role is not limited to fighting. Many girls and boys start out in support functions which also entail great risk and hardship. One of the common tasks assigned to children is to serve as porters, often carrying very heavy loads including ammunition or injured soldiers. Some children act as lookouts, messengers, cooks and implement other routine duties. Girls are particularly vulnerable and are often forced to serve as sexual slaves. Moreover, the use of children for acts of terror, including as suicide bombers has emerged as a phenomenon of modern warfare.
A long healing process
Regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to perpetrate these atrocities and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences. The reintegration of these children is a very complex process.
Prohibition under International Law
Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Furthermore, human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Parties to conflict that recruit and use children are added by the Secretary-General in his annual list of shame.
Definition of a child soldier
A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.
(Source: Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007)