The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a ‘child’ as a person below the age of eighteen years. Children across the world have been used as soldiers in state and non-state military warfare, including World Wars I and II.
The 1970s saw a rise of humanitarian groups that raised the awareness of protecting children from the onslaughts of war, and it was during this time that the word “child soldier” appeared as an unacceptable condition. Though the 2002 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court made enlistment of children under fifteen a war-crime, countries with child soldiers have consistently fallen behind in addressing this issue.
The United Nations (U.N.) estimates that, at present, approximately 300,000 children are used as child soldiers in more than 20 countries in the world, and forty percent of these children are girls. According to the U.N.’s 2017 studies, these are some of the countries with child soldiers:
Countries with Child Soldiers
- Central African Republic (CAR): The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) helped release more than 2,800 child soldiers in CAR in 2014. Poverty leads children from a lot of families to join the militia for food and money. Children as young as 8 years old are used as soldiers by groups in Christian militias known as Anti-Balaka and Muslim Séléka coalition. Soldiering involves being used as human shields, messengers, fighters and sex slaves.
- The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC): The Congolese National Army and the rebel Congress for the Defense of the People have been active recruiters of child soldiers. Young boys and girls are abducted and used as fighters and sex slaves by groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. This occurs not only in DRC, but also southern Sudan, northeastern Congo and the CAR.
- Somalia: Children as young as ten are often abducted and coerced into soldiering. The Transitional Federal Government and Islamist group al-Shabaab are known to carry out these recruitments which lead to “horrific abuses,” according Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports. These violations include forced recruitment, rape, forced marriage, religious/political teaching, suicide-bombing, combat and weapons training.
- Colombia: Thousands of children are recruited by guerillas and paramilitary forces like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army, the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army, and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. HRW reveals, “At least one of every four irregular combatants in Colombia’s civil war is under eighteen years old.” These children are recruited, trained and expected to carry explosives and executions.
- Myanmar: The HRW report, ‘Sold to be Soldiers’ (2007), states that a large portion of the Tatmadaw consists of underage soldiers. In a lot of instances, young boys are lured or coerced into joining the Tatmadaw. In addition to this horrific occurrence, there are numerous non-state armed groups like the Karenni Army, the Karen National Liberation Army and others that use child soldiers.
- Afghanistan: The U.N. reports the use of young children as fighters and suicide-bombers in Afghanistan. In Child Soldiers, David Rosen points out the prevalence of underage soldiers in groups like The Afghan National Police, Haqqani, Taliban, Islamic groups called Hezb-i-Islami and Jamat Sunat al-Dawa Salafia, and Tora Bora front.
- Iraq: The Sunni and Shia Arab groups fighting in the region — along with other militias involved in the battle for Mosul — are reported to recruit child soldiers. According to HRW reports, Yezidi and Kurdish boys and girls are used as combatants by groups like the Shingal Resistance Units and People’s Defense Forces.
- Yemen: Children as young as 14 are deployed here as soldiers by the Yemeni Government to combat the Houthi rebels. UNICEF regards this as more of a socio-cultural problem, as in Yemeni culture, manhood begins at the age of 14 and such adulthood demands the taking up of a weapon. In 2015, the U.N. reported 850 recruitments of children as soldiers. Armed groups like Al-Qaeda also use children for warfare and as sex slaves.
- Syria: The civil war in Syria has led to the deployment of many children as young as seven as soldiers by armed groups. Rebel factions fighting against the government and Islamic groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, Tawhid Brigade and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham use child soldiers. These children are used to ferry ammunitions, fight, tend to the wounded, spy, act as snipers and suicide-bombers, and torture and execute prisoners.
- Sudan and South Sudan: More than a dozen armed groups, including pro-government militias, groups affiliated to the Sudan Liberation Army, and Sudanese Armed Forces, in Sudan, recruit children. In South Sudan, the South Sudanese Armed Forces and other opposition groups continue to deploy child soldiers. HRW notes that children as young as thirteen are abducted, detained and forced into soldiering.
The Fight of International Aid Organizations
Wars, absence of education, poverty, religious/political conditioning and abduction are some of the causes that contribute to this social crime. UNICEF and ILO have been working with government ministries to stop the use of child soldiers by both state and non-state parties. Programs sponsored by UNICEF and various human rights groups aim towards rehabilitation of child soldiers, building community networks, funding and providing education.
Child Soldiers International has been working with local organizations and advocating the protection of children and reintegration of former child soldiers. HRW has been creating information databases on recruitment patterns of a number of agencies in these countries. Though change is slow, the attempt to improve the condition of millions of children in countries with child soldiers remains consistent.
– Jayendrina Singha Ray