Kids With Big Guns: Assessing Recruitment Of Child Soldiers In Armed Conflict


With today’s world gripped in conflict within different religion centric ethnic groups with varied ideologies, nations are in a literal race to build up and further strengthen their military capabilities. In the light of changing nature of global “military” dynamics, numerous probable factors have emerged threatening the “safety and security” of masses, with the ability to compromise “world peace”. However, in the light of rapidly growing armies and frequently emerging conflicts around the world, policy makers often overlook the large-scale recruitment of child soldiers in such militaries. Since, “ending the conflict by any means necessary” takes precedence for many policy makers, the sheer effects of aggressive conflicts on children remains absent from the discussion forums. For many military leadership, the sheer lives of children are not as important as their military agenda’s, objectives and desires of military commanders.

Today, thousands of child soldiers continue to engage in dangerous conflicts across the world. Furthermore, the age is just a number for these soldiers, especially when they are as small as ten years. Children soldiers are recruited both by rebel forces, gorilla units, in the light of recent scenario, Islamic fundamental militant factions along with certain “disorganized” yet government sponsored regular military units. Like their roles, their age varies largely. Some child soldiers are trained on heavy weaponry but largely fight fist wars, while others “less lucky” ones are recruited for intelligence gathering, planting improvised explosive devices (also called road-side bombs), while relaying “confidential” messages within the military faction.

The rapid recruitment of child soldiers directly depends upon the intensity of conflict and extensive participation of military factions across the world. Children living in conflict rigged regions are more vulnerable to be recruited by rebel groups, in an effort to fill their ranks. On most occasions, children are forced to join rebel groups, because of their inability to provide adequate food and shelter to their families. Other rebel military units forcefully recruit children to fill the vacuum within their ranks in an effort to reinforce “essential” segments of their military. Many rebel groups even forcefully recruit children to “taunt and terrorise” even their own families, although this scenario is largely carried out in areas with ethnic tensions. On all occasions child soldiers are forcefully recruited as to reinforce their ranks with “fresh recruits” and use them as a resource.

Furthermore, children living in “deplorable” conditions, forced to live with “inadequate” basic necessities, majorly comprising food and medicines, are largely vulnerable to recruitment. Using their “deplorable” scenarios to their advantage, military factions promise these children to provide best medical facilities, clean water and food under one condition, devote themselves to the ranks and support the militant faction to achieve objectives. In the light of no available option, children join the conflict to “survive”. This becomes a brink for a non-sustainable environment, particularly when the children themselves have enrolled in a conflict. Children become vulnerable to frequent change in climate declining socio-economic scenarios, forcing them to join the conflict to survive. Hence, policy makers must ensure that during effectively addressing the issue of child soldiers, adequate resources are provided to “their region of origin”.

When such child soldiers are involved in a conflict, they not only risk their lives, their health (mental and physical parameters) are seriously affected, which drastically affects their overall growth. Especially, the absence of education and loss of childhood. The absence of education plays a major role particularly when after the conflict, hinders their ability to reintegrate back into the community. With no education and professional skills, child soldiers who spent decades into rebel factions have nowhere to turn to, thus, diminishing all the hopes and dreams for a better future, giving them no choice but to return to their cadres. In the absence of dissolution of former militant factions, these child soldiers enroll themselves into organized crime.

In an effort to counter recruitment of child soldiers, many international communities, think tank, UN agencies have established international laws, commissions and legal bodies. Despite such measures, more than fifty nations continue to promote and allow the use of child soldiers. Shockingly, some of these countries even actively participate in training child soldiers while deploying them in conflict rigged areas, while other countries systematically train these child soldiers until they are physically and mentally fit to engage in a conflict. According to a report published by the United Nations Office of the Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there are seven prominent nations that continue to train and deploy child soldiers during conflict. These nations are South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Uganda and Somalia.
Policy makers must note that, a majority of these countries are located on the horn of North Africa, they continue to participate actively in conflicts in and around the Middle East and South America.

However, a large number of countries have increased the minimum age of recruitment for soldiers to eighteen. This has drastically reduced the number of child soldiers recruiting countries which were earlier estimated to be 71%. Moreover, many nations which carried out illegal and discreet recruitment of child soldiers have “limited” their recruitment to eighteen and above. However, this is not the case with militant and rebel groups, such as Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, that continues to employ, train and “re-educate” child soldiers.

Although, in the light of active participation from international communities and drafting and ratification of significant laws, the future of children seems “brighter and promising”, however, a lot of efforts still needs to be done in an effort to “effectively and efficiently” resolve the issue. Today, children of varied age-groups continue to be deprived of their “childhood, education, health and secure, sustainable future”. This issue needs precedence as the global world can no longer afford to “ignore” in an effort to complete resolve and secure the future of children forcefully recruited in war.

Case study – Use of child soldiers during Civil war in Syria

Since the late nineteenth century, Assad regime have controlled the political leadership in Syria. During the rule of incumbent Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the masses have been “extensively” oppressed and forced to thrive with inadequate resources such as food, clean water and medicines. Moreover, Assad further strengthened his intelligence units, taking a similar “communist behavior” during the then East Berlin, which resulted in mass violation of privacy and rights. Furthermore, the civilian masses were debarred from voting, if they criticized Assad’s regime.

In the wake of Arab Spring of 2011, which resulted in massive civilian protests from Middle East to North Africa, large number of civilians marched into the cities in Syria. Many military dictators were deposed; however, Assad regime was prepared to confront with a military response. The civil war in Syria further enraged, when the government forces opened fired on large crowd and used all necessary means to inflict fear in the crowd, which even meant to use chemical explosives. In the light of mass displacement of Syrians, human rights were “seriously and extensively” violated. As masses rigorously protested against the Assad regime, taking the benefit of an unstable government, many “power-hungry” rebel groups engaged in some of the serious “gun battles” against Assad Army. Seeing the vacuum of power, militant factions joined the fight, which was largely limited to rebel groups, Assad fighters, forcing the world to react militarily. This drastically transformed Syria into a “complex” battlefield. The “fleeing” population largely became a collateral of the war and their nation an “inhospitable” place to survive. This became the epicentre of a refugee crisis that continues to haunt Europe even today.

Desperate to seek shelter, different communities in Syria began migrating to safer regions, many sought shelter in neighboring countries while a significant percentage of refugees headed towards Europe. Their journey remained a “subject” to struggle, a battle between life and death. A large percentage of masses died because of inadequate food, clean water and medical supplies. Although, out of those who made it to Europe where largely confined to border regions. This resulted in a large presence of refugees in the shelter camps of Jordan and Greece further complexing “international politics” and domestic community relations in host countries.

Additionally, the after-effect of civil war in Syria instigated the increase of “child soldier” recruitment. As aforementioned statement highlighted the rise of rebel groups, the civil war in Syria instigated the rise of many violent rebel groups and non-state actors as neighboring nations too drifted into this conflict with numerous actors.

On the opposition side was, Islamic fundamental terror factions ISIL, who massively recruited child soldiers in an effort to reinforce their ranks with “freshly” available recruits to fight against Assad regime. This statement can further be reinforced by video footage released by Islamic state propaganda units “showcasing” children carrying out beheadings and executions.

Many other terror factions such as Al Qaeda and Taliban continues to recruitment child soldiers on large scale. Taliban particularly still carries out recruitment through “personal” connection in an effort to combat NATO led forces. According to a report published by United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, initial assessment carried out security operatives in Afghanistan highlights the involvement of child soldiers as small as seven. Moreover, alternate studies conducted by various UN agencies points towards the fact that, “recruitment of child soldiers is increasingly becoming a trend which has its roots to civil war in Syria and subsequent refugee crisis. Already discussed in the aforementioned statements, child soldiers are vulnerable to recruitment because of the “deplorable” conditions they live in, forcing them to participate in modern warfare in a hope to provide better facilities to their families. Although a large percentage of children did migrate from Syria, many were forced to join the ranks in militia in an effort to “survive”, which many continues to fight even today.

The controversial nature of the issue

The large-scale recruitment of child soldiers in an effort to create formidable scenario for militant in a conflict, as stated in the aforementioned arguments, is a widely used tactics. Child soldiers have been recruited for decades and extensively used during conflict in roughly every part of the globe. In the light of its sensitivity and the future of thousands of child soldiers, policy makers must act immediately to resolve this issue, as said, the issue too remains rigged with certain complexities and controversies.

The most extensively discussed issue that continues to challenge policy makers is, defining the term child soldier. According to largely agreed and ratified international policies, “any child that indirectly or indirectly involves in continuing or further extending the armed conflict, not limited to use of weaponry or gathering intelligence, is said to be a child soldier”. Despite the presence of a “loose” definition, policy makers often fail to understand the “clarity” of the term since a child soldier within the context of aforementioned definition can be a child who is a soldier, or a civilian, or one who hangs between the balance of a child and a soldier.

Furthermore, as stated in the aforementioned statement children are recruited because of numerous circumstances. Children are vulnerable to recruitment because of various (already discussed) factors but not limited to inadequate resources, deplorable civic amenities, absence of shelter, instigated often pressured by family and former child soldiers or actors participating in the armed conflict, or by forceful means and threatening. Since the definition particularly highlights the child as a soldier recruited in war, it fails to address the issue of whether the child was forcefully recruited into militia and share equal responsibility especially when certain members of the militia commits atrocities.

Since, a large number of children are threatened and blackmailed by militia leaders, it is quite difficult to understand the then “psychological” prognosis of a child particularly when he/she agrees to enrol in the militia. Furthermore, understanding certain fragmented explanations from the “loose” definition, the definition of “armed conflict” remains questionable here.

While defining the term child soldier taking out the “child” and focusing on the “soldier” does more harm than good. Going by the term, a soldier is a term that participates as a “uniformed” military capacity with a specified orders and chain of commands.

Reinforced with a command structure, the “soldier” fights with skill and tactics. A large percentage of child soldiers comes from civilian backgrounds, and serve as a “military capacity” in militia and rebel forces with absolute no knowledge or warfare or skill.
Furthermore, a significantly large percentage of the issue rests on how to reintegrate these child soldiers in post conflict scenarios. In such scenarios, policy makers have bene previously engaged in extensive discussions. Many experts argue that child soldiers require certain “protection”, others argue that despite of their role or not, they should be punished, many section of the communities continue to sight reasons of insecurity when it comes to reintegrating child soldiers.

Also, in the light excessive stress and unimagined circumstances these child soldiers go through, every individual reacts in a different way. This further scare civilian population. In an effort to adequately address the issue, civil societies participation and involvement should be extensive. Policy makers must provide adequate training to child support staffs, however, “adequate training” and its composition vary from one scenario to other.

Furthermore, declaring the mass atrocities committed by a group of militias and the involvement of child soldiers in the act leaves numerous questions which can never be answered. The crimes vary from child soldiers vary significantly, ranging from “petite crimes” to “horrors”.

However, in the light of controversial circumstances and inadequate evidences pointing towards the child soldier, a verdict declaring his acts “war crimes” cannot just be passed. It is important to note that, a large percentage of child soldiers are under eighteen, making the regional and national courts to pursue the case under “crimes committed by children” if their laws allow. This has instigated numerous debates whether these should be prosecution of “crimes committed by children” or not.

Furthermore, the answer is not limited to a simple affirmation or a decline, the maximum sentence passed for certain crimes committed by children remains an issue of debate. Additionally, there is no international law established in place to assess the crimes committed by child soldiers, the adequate procedure to assess the crimes remains absent. Since, it is quite difficult to assess because the age of child soldiers vary significantly, also child soldiers are mostly forced to commit horrific crimes under the orders of militia leaders, who are the principle instigators in such as case.

Moreover, there are many controversies that challenges policy makers to unanimously agree on the definition of child soldiers. The aforementioned statements are some of the most important issues that challenges policy makers. In an effort to completely eliminate the use of child soldiers in conflict, policy makers must adequately and effectively challenge such issues.


Policy makers will face tremendous challenges while drafting policies in an effort eliminate the use of child soldiers, particularly because the recruitment and deploying of child soldiers rely on numerous “political” factors and requires a multifaceted approach. For example, the solutions established in place to end recruitment of child soldiers in Somalia, cannot be replicated to resolve the on-going civil war in Syria and Yemen. There are certain “similar” properties that could help in resolving the conflict, however, a specific dedicated policy would resolve the issue.

Furthermore, a universal age limit of military recruitment, even conscription should be set to eighteen, this policy should be ratified and implemented all over the globe.

Moreover, to ensure that the policy is not violation even an inch, UN should establish a commission, particularly appointing peacekeeping and human rights experienced officials. Although, these efforts were implemented through the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. The minimum age of conscription was raised from 15 to 18, however even then recruitment of child soldiers was carried out at unprecedented levels. Strictly enforcing is the key.

Most of the militaries are aware of the convention and inspite of this, continue to recruit child soldiers of ages seven. Those governments not abiding with the convention should be threatened with sanctions, a strict forcible way to ensure that the nations abide.

Since, a large percentage of recruitment of child soldiers are carried out by violent non-state actors, the only possible option is to eliminate such groups. Violent non-state actors particularly Islamic fundamental groups in the name of “re-education” brainwash children before handing over Kalashnikovs to them. Creating joint terror task forces or strategic mechanisms would not only ensure that they are completely eliminated, but also puts an end to child recruitment.

Policy makers must understand that, the issues of child soldier are not only limited to forceful recruitment. As stated in the aforementioned arguments, many children living under “deplorable” circumstances opt for recruitment in the militias in an effort to survive. Many children end up on violent non-state actor’s recruitment centres because of their need to provide better facility to their families. It is also important to note that, many child soldiers after the end of the conflict remain unemployed, looking for places to shelter, because they were heavily dependent on militias for basic amenities. This forces them to indulge in organized crime activities. While drafting policies for child soldiers, policy makers must address the issue of rehabilitation of child soldiers effectively and adequately and ensure that their future remains “sustainable”.

*Anant Mishra is a former Youth Representative to the United Nations. He had previously served with the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations General Assembly as well as the Economic and Social Council. His previous assignments were in Rwanda and Congo. He also serves as a visiting faculty for numerous universities and delivers lectures on conflict and foreign relations.

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