The Recruitment of Children as Soldiers Explained

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This article was written by one of our passionate readers, Ms. Katarzyna Rybarczyk, a Political Correspondent. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue.


Children should never take part in armed conflicts. In fact, as UNICEF says, the use of child soldiers by armed groups represents a severe violation of international humanitarian law. The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and signed by more than 150 countries, prohibits the recruitment and use of children in wars. And yet, each year, thousands of children are recruited into militant organisations in various regions around the world. 

Most of the time, children join armed groups because they are forced to do so. Sometimes, however, they join voluntarily, encouraged by false promises of safety and good income that would allow their families to get out of poverty. Either way, those who end up as child recruits face unimaginable physical and psychological abuses. In addition to that, they are likely to be rejected by the communities they grew up in, which can leave them with no choice but to rejoin the militant groups in the future. 

Who recruits children

A great proportion of child soldiers is recruited by non-state actors, which use terror as one of their main tactics. Given that children committing acts of violence and taking away civilians’ lives is viewed by the public as particularly distressing, these groups specifically deploy children in terrorist attacks and direct combat. That was the case with, for example, ISIS that enlisted more than a thousand children for armed combat and suicide terrorism missions. The children were called ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ and were expected to kill and promote the group’s extremist ideology. ISIS saw a great number of minors joining its ranks voluntarily as the organisation promised them free education. Sadly, however, the education programme ISIS offered was composed of shari’a classes and training in using weapons. As a result of that, these children would grow up having a distorted vision of the world. 

Unfortunately, state armed forces sometimes also recruit children. In fact, ten countries still allow child recruitment into their militaries. That includes Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen. In these countries, the main motivation of children to join the armed forces is destitution. Armies give them food and shelter that they lack in their communities.  

Girls are child soldiers too   

When people think of child soldiers, many of them think of young boys. Nevertheless, according to the UN, four out of ten child soldiers are girls. They are recruited primarily to become wives of adult male fighters. The majority of them are abducted and coerced into joining. Some girls, whose freedom is limited in conservative societies they come from, however, are tempted by the idea of being more independent and getting the chance to oppose traditional gender roles. Hence, they decide to join the groups, not thinking about the possible consequences of their actions. 

Once girls are recruited, they face sexual exploitation and abuses. In addition to forced marriages, they are often subject to forced pregnancies and trafficking. As a result of that, they have to deal with double trauma, the one caused by taking part in a war, and the one caused by repeated sexual exploitation. The harms of their participation in armed groups affect their lives even after they leave the organisations’ ranks. For example, after the girls are liberated from their oppressors, they face troubles if they want to remarry as society sees them as ‘contaminated.’ 

Uncertain future of former child soldiers

The problem of the recruitment of children as soldiers has been proving particularly challenging to eliminate. The groups that use child soldiers ignore the calls of the international community asking them to put an end to it. In a simmilar manner, the exact numbers of children who are members of armed forces and groups are unknown as these actors try to conceal their participation. 

Most child soldiers have been deprived of access to accurate education and even after they manage to escape they have limited professional and social opportunities. On top of that, thousands of former child soldiers are experiencing physical and emotional trauma that is stopping them from rebuilding their lives. If they struggle with rejoining society, there is a big risk of them being recruited and exploited again. For that reason, it is imperative that substantial funding is allocated to reintegration support programmes and former child soldiers are not abandoned by the international community. Without that, there is little hope that they will ever escape the cycle of violence. 

About the author
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration News. This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world and helps people get immigration advice.

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