The issue of child soldiers is a concern of International Security due to the large number of children used in armed conflicts and the intensity of the tasks performed by them.

What are children soldiers?

The expression “child soldiers” is a combination of two somewhat contradictory and irreconcilable words. According to article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the child “is defined as every human being under the age of eighteen, unless national law grants the age of majority earlier”, that is, the definition of child demonstrates immaturity and lack of physical, mental, and emotional development. On the other hand, soldier (who is also considered a civic citizen) refers to men and women who work, voluntarily or as a result of compulsory military service, in the armed forces or militarized forces of a sovereign country, receiving training and equipment, to defend that country and its interests, also performing other non-combat functions, such as peace operations, surveillance activities in emergency situations and natural disasters.

In this perspective, the 2007 Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Conflicts defined a child associated with an armed force or armed group as all those under the age of 18 who are recruited or recruited or used by armed forces or groups, in any capacity, including, but not limited to, boys and girls, used to fight, cook, spy, or serve for sexual purposes.

The Child Soldiers Recruitment Process

Recruitment can take many forms, whether forced or voluntary. At the level of forced recruitment, abduction is the main means, as this is how they recruit more children. Abduction can happen in different ways, that is: when a child crosses the path of armed groups; when armed groups invade their homes, schools and orphanages; and, also, when armed groups send the leader of a community to gather a certain number of children and young people, under penalty of threat of attacking and destroying the village, if the leader does not comply (in this case, the local authorities will be the agents of the abduction). In addition to this, treason and the use of drugs also contribute to forced recruitment. On the other hand, voluntary recruitment is based on several factors, such as poverty, lack of access to education and/or lack of employment alternatives, motivation to avenge the death of loved ones, desire to defend their community, separation of parents due to the war, leaving them without access to basic resources, orphanhood, among others. Also note that many girls also join these groups, not only for the reasons mentioned, but to escape domestic abuse and forced marriages, as well as to obtain education, training, and equality. As such, many of these children feel obliged to become soldiers for their own protection, as, faced with violence and chaos everywhere, they decide they are safer with guns in their hands. Furthermore, as many of them are orphans, they consider that armed groups could be their “new family”.

After recruitment, children are subjected to long walks and strenuous training. Often, because they cannot withstand such conditions, these children suffer the most violent forms of punishment, leaving them to die along the way, without any compassion.

In turn, the newcomers are forced to watch and even commit the most diverse atrocities, namely, killing adults from rival groups, children, their own companions in the group and relatives and friends at the time of the abduction. However, if any of them refuses, the punishments are quite severe, ranging from mutilation, torture, and death. This strategy is used to separate children from their previous life, breaking the bonds of family and community. It also serves to fortify children, so that they feel indifferent to violence (because it becomes a routine) and that they learn to devalue human life.

Child soldiers roles

Generally, recruited children do not play the role of direct combatants in armed conflicts, which does not exempt them from the dangers and extreme conditions to which they are subjected. These are used for secondary functions, such as: cooks, spies, messengers and sex slaves, and the latter function is essentially attributed to girl soldiers. On the other hand, younger children are used as spies due to their size.

Children are also used for the role of carrier, where they often carry more than sixty kilos, including ammunition and wounded soldiers. If they are unable to transport these positions, they are severely punished and even killed.

The situation of girl soldiers should also be highlighted, which is particularly worrying, as they are victims of constant sexual abuse and beatings (mostly, they play the role of “soldiers’ wives”). In addition, they are constantly forced to abort their babies because of these violations, taking place in harmful and unsafe conditions. However, the role of girls is not just that of sex slaves, on the contrary, they perform various functions, from long walks to acquire water, cooking, spying, caring for children who are not aborted, soldiers themselves, recruiters, doctors, weapons expert, “bomb girls” and even leaders.

The situation of child soldiers in the world

The recruitment of child soldiers in conflicts remains a serious and worrying problem, especially within armed groups. Despite being protected at the international level, the phenomenon continues to spread throughout all armed conflicts in the world, with special attention to African and Asian countries.

According to the Secretary-General’s Report on Children and Armed Conflict, carried out on June 20, 2019, for the period from January to December 2018, it was found that children continue to be forced to actively participate in hostilities since carry out suicide attacks against civilians for secondary functions, such as sex slaves or human shields. Somalia remains the country with the highest number of cases of recruitment and use of children (2,300), followed by Nigeria with 1,947 cases.

In 2019, the Security Council agenda presented a list of countries that recruit and use children in the hostility of armed conflicts, including the following countries: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel and State from Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen. The Secretary General’s report also includes other countries, such as India that are not part of this agenda, but are equally important.

In many of these countries, the ages of children were between 12 and 17 years of age, with some of them recruited as young as 8 years of age (Afghanistan). In both countries, children were mainly recruited by armed groups, and some of the children were also recruited by government forces (Myanmar).

In summary, the international community is deeply concerned about the violations committed against children (recruitment and use of children, death and mutilation of children, rape, and other forms of sexual violence against children, child abduction, among others). Therefore, it is essential that countries implement measures, comply with the norms of international humanitarian law, and find solutions to end armed conflicts, to guarantee the protection of their children and to put an end to the recruitment of children.


Written by: Maria Luisa Pereira



Machel, Graça (1996). Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the children: Impact of armed conflict on children, United Nations. Available:

ONU (2019a). Relatório do Secretário-geral sobre crianças e conflitos armados. Available: DOC

UNICEF (2011). Child protection from violence, exploration, and abuse. Available:

Wessells, Michael G. (2009). Child soldiers from violence to protection, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.


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