Often we imagine that wars are only fought by the adult members of armies, militias or guerrilla groups. However this is far from the case, in fact, many children are directly involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers are children under 18 years old that have been recruited into government armed forces, government militias, factional groups and armed opposition groups. The UN estimates that more than 300,000 children are actively involved in armed conflict around the world (http://www.un.org/Pubs/CyberSchoolBus/childsoldiers/whatsgoingon/). Africa has the greatest problem where it was estimated that up to 100,000 children were involved in armed conflict in 2004 (www.child-soldiers.org). However, child soldiers are also recruited in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Most of the soldiers are aged between 14 and 18 years however children as young as 7 years old are recruited (www.child-soldiers.org). Children are forcibly recruited into armed conflict. However, many ‘volunteer’ to become a child soldier as they see few alternatives to enlisting. For instance, circumstances including poverty, lack of work opportunities, limited access to education and the promise of an income are some reasons for joining. Many children living within armed conflict due to war and economic and social disharmony witness family members and friends being killed and brutalised by the forces. Consequently, recruitment is seen as the only option for survival.
Girls are reported to have enlisted to escape violence, sexual abuse, domestic servitude and arranged marriages. However, once they have joined they are especially at risk of rape, sexual harassment and abuse as well as involvement in military fighting. Orphans are particularly vulnerable. All children are subject to harsh conditions including torture, insufficient food, harsh discipline, hard labour, brutal training regimes and dangerous activities such as weapon use and laying explosives. Besides fighting in combat, child soldiers perform duties including cooking, domestic labour, guards, portering, spying and sexual slavery. Many report that their ‘initiation’ involved killing their best friend or family member to test whether they can be trusted. They are forced to commit terrible atrocities and if they don’t kill, they will be killed or beaten so they are left with no option if they are to survive. Hundreds of thousands of children have fought and died in armed conflicts throughout the world.
International legal and policy frameworks for the protection of child soldiers involved in armed conflict are being developed. The International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 1998, permits those found guilty of the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years to be prosecuted for their actions. Furthermore, more governments are now agreeing to legally enforce international laws that ban the use of child soldiers in armed conflict (www.child-soldiers.org). Although programs such as the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) are established to help child soldiers learn new skills and reintegrate into their communities, funds and resources to support such programs are limited. However, if these programs are to be successful, long term investment is required.