Around the world children as young as eight years old are being recruited to join the ranks of armed groups and forces. They are being deployed in direct combat, hold support roles and perform logistical tasks. These groups spread propaganda to coerce children into joining, or, most frequently, abduct and terrorise them into obedience. The recruitment of children under eighteen is forbidden by international law, but regardless the crime thrives in several regions of the world ravaged by war.
The UN’s Children and armed conflict report, released in June 2019, identified twenty countries where cases of child recruitment as soldiers have been verified. The report named the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen as the states where the problem is the most serious. Amongst them, the highest number of conscripted children could be observed in Somalia with 2,300 child soldiers, followed by Nigeria with 1,947 of them.
Methods of Recruitment
In countries where law enforcement is poor and the political situation unstable, children are vulnerable to forced recruitment. Firstly, terrorist organisations deceive the youth by showing them false images of prosperity and happiness within the groups. They also indoctrinate them by presenting the organisation’s ideology as the only right one. These groups specifically target children, knowing that they are easy to manipulate.
In societies where children are being recruited as soldiers, they and their families often live in poverty. Hence, lured by the promises of good salaries in the militant groups, children decide to join them and help their loved ones. On top of that, tired of living in conflict zones, children sometimes think that joining armed groups will provide them with protection and safety. Often, before becoming child soldiers they had been experiencing maltreatment at home or abuses by state’s forces.
Most of the time, however, children do not make a conscious decision to join militant groups. Instead, they are taken away from their parents and trafficked to remote regions where they have no way of seeking help. There, they are threatened, exploited, and face physical and sexual violence. They are told that if they attempt to escape, they and their families will be hurt, thus children sometimes stay in the groups for several years.
Children are assigned a variety of roles within armed groups that recruit them. As UNICEF explains, they can be ‘fighters, scouts, cooks, porters, guards, messengers, and more.’ When they first join, they have to undergo military training during which they learn how to use weapons. Then, many are deployed in combat and are forced to kill or serve as suicide bombers and human shields, which shows how serious the problem is.
Girls’ roles are different as they are usually abducted to become wives of male fighters or to be used as sex slaves. They are held in captivity and abused on a daily basis. Often, they are forced to bear children for adult members of the organisations that kidnapped them. Girls are being treated as objects and constantly face gender-based discrimination, which makes their experience in armed groups particularly traumatic.
Nevertheless, no matter their role and gender, all child soldiers are deprived of the right to grow up in a healthy, safe environment. Their suffering and the scale of their fundamental human rights breaches are unimaginable and no child should ever find themselves in such a situation.
Putting an end to child exploitation
The problem of recruitment of children as soldiers is a difficult one to solve. Even after their liberation, many children face rejection and discrimination by their home communities that see them as former criminals. In addition to that, former child soldiers deal with extreme psychological distress. As UNICEF explains, it is imperative to address the roots of the problem in order to eradicate it.
Hence, intensified efforts should be placed on the prevention of child recruitment into armed forces and groups. The main tool to achieve that should be to provide children in conflict zones with ‘social and economic opportunities to provide them with more prospects for their future’, says War Child, an organisation rehabilitating child victims of war. That, in addition to promoting and safeguarding their rights, would ensure that they lead a happy, safe life and do not have to seek protection in groups that use them to achieve their strategic goals.