Use of children as soldiers.
* Approximately 300,000 children under 18 currently participate in armed conflicts. Thousands more face recruitment or are members of armed forces not currently at war.
* Poverty, the proliferation of small and cheap weapons, and the changing nature of warfare have increased both the use and the roles of child soldiers, despite increasingly stronger international agreements designed to minimize this practice.
* Using children as soldiers robs them of their families and their education; surviving children often have difficulty rejoining their communities.
At the beginning of the 20th century, wars were fought primarily on defined battlefields between men in governmental armed forces. Today, dozens of wars specifically target civilians and their social institutions. Most are within, not between, states. Children have become increasingly involved in these wars, both as civilian victims and as combatants. Poverty, social disruption and destruction stemming from these wars, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons are major factors in expanding the use of child soldiers.
Today more than an estimated 500,000 children have been recruited in 87 countries (including the United States). At least 300,000 children are actively participating in conflicts, and are directly involved in combat in 41 countries. Although most child soldiers are between 15 and 18 years old, others are as young as seven.
Children have been used in support services and even as soldiers throughout history. However, the rise in intrastate conflict has exacerbated the conditions--such as internal displacement or refugee flight, and separation of families--most likely to pressure a child to become a soldier. Under these circumstances, it is impossible to make a distinction between a forced and a voluntary child soldier. Some children join armed groups for food, survival, or to avenge atrocities in their communities; others have been physically abducted for war by such armed groups as the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.
Armed forces and paramilitary groups use both girls and boys in many roles. Children commonly start out in support positions, acting as porters, cooks, spies, or sexual slaves. Often, though, these children end up on the front lines of combat, planting or detecting landmines or participating in first-wave assaults. Often plied with drugs and given promises of food, shelter, and security, child soldiers are at times forced to commit atrocities against other armed groups and civilian populations, including sometimes their own families and communities.
This use of children in war is greatly facilitated by an estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons worldwide. These weapons are very inexpensive: an AK-47 can sometimes be bought for a bag of maize or for $20-30. They are durable, small, lightweight, easy to maintain, and simple enough for a 10-year-old to handle. Illegal arms trafficking and poor monitoring of the legal trade make it easy for nearly anyone to obtain these weapons--and to put them into the hands of children.
International agreements have been created to protect children from war. The 1949 Geneva Convention IV (and its 1977 Additional Protocols I and II) and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) delineate guidelines for protecting children in conflict and set 15 as the minimum age for soldiers. The 1998 International Criminal Court (ICC) statute makes it a war crime to conscript or enlist children under age 15 or to use them in hostilities. A 1998 UN policy directs governments not to send military observers and civilian police younger than 25 to participate in UN operations, and it specifies that other types of peacekeeping troops should preferably be at least 21 but definitely not younger than 18. The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 (1999) bans the worst forms of child labor and prohibits forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.
Not yet in force is an upgrade of the CRC agreement--the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, adopted by the UN in May 2000. The Protocol requires state parties to "take all feasible measures" to ensure that children under age 18 do not participate in hostilities, prohibits the conscription of anyone under 18, obliges states to raise the age of voluntary recruitment to at least 16, forbids any use of children under age 18 by nongovernmental armed groups, and directs states to criminalize such practices.
Attention is also being given to the need to assist child soldiers after conflict. Many former child soldiers have a difficult time reentering civilian life, and communities frequently have trouble reaccepting them. Almost without exception, peace treaties do not address the use of children as soldiers. Consequently they rarely provide for demobilization of child soldiers or for adequate care or assistance--medical, psychological, spiritual, or educational--to help them reenter civilian society. Small efforts in countries such as Sierra Leone are addressing these needs, but more programs are necessary
Shannon McManimon <email@example.com> works with the AFSC National Youth and Militarism Program. Rachel Stohl <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a Senior Analyst at CDI.