Child Soldiers of the 21st Century

by | Oct 17, 2018 | Student blogs | 0 comments

This blog post was written by Amy Hook who is currently enrolled in our MA in Humanitarian and Conflict Response.

The news that armed groups in South Sudan released more than 200 child soldiers in April was gratifying. Since violence arose between the government and opposition rebel forces in 2013 as many as 19,000 children have been forcibly recruited as soldiers according to a report by UNICEF.

The geographical range in the use of child soldiers is vast. South Sudan is one of many countries around the world where children are recruited and used in conflicts by both state and non-state armed groups. Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia and Yemen are all culpable in this respect.

A common stereotype of a child soldier is a youth carrying an AK47 over their shoulder, however the role of a child soldier is not only restricted to fighting. The role of boys and girls can be as fighters, cooks, messengers, or as targets of sexual exploitation. For instance, West African Islamic State terror group Boko Haram has increased its use of children as ‘human bombs’ according to UNICEF. Irrespective of the different roles, all are exposed to the most intense levels of violence.


How do children become child soldiers?

The circumstances in which children become soldiers vary. Many children are forcibly abducted and taken as child soldiers, but many join armed groups voluntarily as they see few alternatives to participating in the conflict around them. Influences are broad: joining as a means to survive; leaving a home life desperate with poverty; and retribution after seeing family members murdered.


What has been done about child soldiers?

A number of organisations are working to stop the use of child soldiers. In 2014, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict at UNICEF launched a campaign named ‘Children, Not Soldiers.’ The purpose was to bring a global understanding of the basic concept that child soldiers should not be used in conflict.

Since the ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ campaign started, numerous states have committed to preventing child recruitment in their armed forces, and six have signed action plans to this effect. According to the UN, more than 5,000 children were released and reintegrated in 2017 as a direct result of this global commitment. It is definitely a step in the right direction and there seems to be a determination to tackle this issue with the on-going signing of official treaties and protocols. However, in countries where structures are damaged by conflict, implementation remains a big barrier to agreement between the parties.


Child soldiers need more support

When estimates reveal that 300,000 children are enlisted as soldiers around the world, and with discussions between human rights groups and the UN confirming the issue shows no sign of abating, it is unquestionable that more could be achieved.

Despite continued encouragement from the international community to commit much needed funding and resources to prevent the use of child soldiers, and to support those children when they eventually return home, words of encouragement are simply not enough.

Today, military recruitment of children continues and the destructive practices persist. New strategies and active work around the world has to continue and advance at a much faster pace if there is to be any chance of stopping the abuse.

It is difficult to envisage children fighting a war at such a young age, except perhaps as play when using their plastic figurines. Children forced in war and conflict should get the opportunity to understand there is a world outside conflict, where they can live in safety. Each child has the right to a childhood no matter where they are in the world. With effort and action, the world must work to ensure child soldiers become a thing of the past.


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