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Summary Article: Child Soldiers
From The Encyclopedia of Peace Psychology

Children, defined under international law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as people under 18 years of age, are widely exploited by state actors' armed forces (e.g., government troops) and by non-state actors' armed groups (e.g., rebel groups and paramilitaries). Although the term child soldier typically evokes images of male combatants, many girls are associated with armed forces or armed groups. Child soldiers include not only combatants but also children who perform non-combat roles such as spies, cooks, porters, and servants. (See Child Soldiers and Mental Health; Children, Psychosocial Interventions with; Children and Armed Conflict: Strategic Review of Machel Study; Children and Human Rights; Children and Political Violence; Children and Resilience; Gangs and Political Violence, Children and Youth Involvement in; Girls in Armed Groups.)

Many analysts believe that at any point in time there are approximately 250,000 children who are in armed forces and armed groups worldwide, but the insecurity and fog of war make it difficult to collect accurate data. Commanders who recruit and use children typically try to hide their actions, particularly since the International Criminal Court has made it a war crime to recruit children who are under 15 years of age. Children themselves may try to hide their recruitment in order to avoid being stigmatized. So great is the stigma, particularly for girls, that in Angola's civil war thousands of formerly recruited girls hid this fact until after the war had ended (Wessells, 2006).

The global nature of child soldiering is evident in the fact that between 1990 and 2010 children were often recruited in countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Burma/ Myanmar, Burundi, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda, among many others. Governments such as those of the United States and the United Kingdom continue to recruit children, but do so under the Optional Protocol on Children and Armed Conflict, the guidelines of which make child recruitment legal so long as it is voluntary, supported by parental consent, and the recruited young person does not participate in hostilities under the age of 18 years.


Commanders frequently recruit children because they face troop shortfalls and large numbers of children are available. Commanders may prefer young children because they can easily be terrified and controlled. Armed with automatic weapons such as the AK-47 assault rifle, which is widely available throughout Africa for about the price of a chicken, even ten-year-old children can be molded into fighters. However, the majority of recruited children are between 15 and 17 years of age. Commanders often prefer teenagers for their large size, their abilities to plan and maneuver effectively, and their fearlessness. To increase willingness to fight, commanders in some groups ply children with drugs, and in some African countries they have had local healers conduct rituals believed to make the children bulletproof.

Children become associated with armed groups through a mixture of forced and nonforced recruitment, both of which have significant psychological dimensions. In northern Uganda, for example, the Lord's Resistance Army recruited over 60,000 children over a 20-year period by abducting them at gunpoint. Children's abduction into armed groups may be coupled with horrendous violence designed to instill fear and a willingness to obey orders. For example, in Sierra Leone, the opposition group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attacked villages, captured children, and forced the children to kill members of their own village or family as a means of making it impossible for them to return home. For girls, forced recruitment is often coupled with sexual violence, as a male captor may force a newly captured woman to be his “bush wife.” For many girls, rape and impregnation inside armed groups create enormous problems such as sexually transmitted infections, birth complications, mothering under very difficult circumstances, and heightened stigma that persist long after a ceasefire has been achieved. (See Girls in Armed Groups.)

Nonforced recruitment occurs when children decide to join an armed force or group. Although such decisions have sometimes been referred to as voluntary, the extremely impoverished and difficult life conditions of many young people raise questions about whether the decisions are voluntary or driven by desperation and a lack of alternatives. Decisions to join armed groups reflect a mixture of push and pull factors. For example, a girl who is abused at home or whose family plans to force her into marriage may decide to leave home and join an armed group. Family issues can also be pull factors, as children may join an armed group because they already have fathers, brothers, or uncles who have joined. In some cases, children join armed groups to attain a sense of belonging and family, much as occurs among children who join gangs. Common pull factors include the quest for money, revenge, status, or excitement. In the context of liberation struggles, politically conscious teenagers may be attracted for ideological reasons into armed groups that use violence as a means of fighting oppression and achieving independence. In Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in Occupied Palestinian Territories, young people who saw themselves as fighting for liberation, honor, and glory became martyrs and suicide bombers. (See Gangs and Political Violence, Children and Youth Involvement in.)

Reintegration and Prevention

After a ceasefire has been achieved, governments and the UN often organize a process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in order to stand down armies, build peace, and enable former soldiers to transition into civilian life. International guidelines stipulate that there should be a separate DDR process for children (UNICEF, 2007). As part of the disarmament process, child soldiers enter a cantonment area and set down their weapons. Next, they are demobilized and given documents indicating that they are no longer part of armed forces or groups. Depending on the context, they may live in an interim care center where they receive a mixture of health and psychosocial care for a short time. Interim care centers evoke controversy because they often tend to keep children too long and distract attention from reintegration into the community.

To support reintegration, it is vital to provide comprehensive supports, including: (1) family tracing and reunification, since formerly recruited children may not know where their families are; (2) community dialogue and sensitization that helps community members understand the situation of formerly recruited children and enables them to support the children's return and integration; (3) family mediation, which helps to resolve conflicts that may arise when child soldiers return home; (4) health and psychosocial (discussed below) supports, including supports for girls; (5) education, including accelerated education for young people that avoids the shame associated with placement of teenagers in classes with ten-year-olds; (6) reconciliation activities to reduce and manage conflicts between community members and returning former child soldiers; (7) vocational counseling and training that enable youths to acquire the marketable skills needed to earn an income; (8) participation in jobs or income-generating activities that support peace and are sustainable; (9) cultural processes such as spiritual cleansing rituals conducted by traditional healers that reduce stigma and are seen as essential for community harmony with the ancestors; and (10) restorative justice processes wherein former child soldiers give back to their communities in locally appropriate ways, for example, through participation in community development projects.

In developing these reintegration supports, five key principles should be applied. First, include means of prevention that avoid re-recruitment and new recruitment activities. A protective environment can be nurtured through the activation and support of community-based child protection mechanisms and also through national policies to prevent child recruitment. Second, avoid the privileging of formerly recruited children. Supports should be organized not only for former child soldiers but also for the wider array of young people, some of whom may be worse off than the young people who had attacked them. Third, make reintegration a community effort that mobilizes the local population in support of returning former child soldiers. Fourth, do no harm. Too often, children's DDR processes cause unintended harm by discriminating against girls or giving the children cash, which commanders confiscate and use to recruit other children. Fifth, formerly recruited girls and boys should have a voice and influential role in designing, implementing, and evaluating DDR supports for children. This approach respects the right of child participation and insures that programs are more relevant to children's perspectives and situation.

Psychosocial Impact and Support

The psychosocial impact of children's recruitment depends highly on their experiences inside armed groups. High doses of exposure to violence, repeated participation in killing, sexual victimization, and long periods of engagement in armed groups lead to negative psychosocial outcomes. Problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety may make it difficult for formerly recruited children to function well as civilians (Betancourt et al., 2008). However, there has been a tendency of the media and also some psychologists to incorrectly portray former child soldiers as all traumatized or a “Lost Generation.” These images are inconsistent with recent evidence that most formerly recruited children are not traumatized and exhibit remarkable resilience (Boothby, Crawford, & Halperin, 2006; Wessells, 2006). (See Child Soldiers and Mental Health; Children and Political Violence; Children and Resilience.)

The greatest self-reported source of distress for formerly recruited children comes not from the residues of past violence but from problems of their current living situation. Many formerly recruited children say that their biggest concerns are that they have little education and no jobs or means of earning an income, which makes it very difficult to perform the roles (e.g., mother, father) expected of young people. In addition, returning former child soldiers may be subject to reprisal attacks or, more commonly, to stigmatization. Girls usually bear a greater burden of stigma, and their children often carry the double stigma of being “rebel children” and born out of wedlock.

To support the mental health and psychosocial well-being of formerly recruited children, it is important to take a holistic approach that recognizes that former child soldiers exhibit considerable diversity and that different people may need different kinds of support. One way of envisioning the system of supports is in the form of a pyramid having four layers (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2007). (See Post-Conflict Psychosocial Intervention.) The base of the intervention pyramid consists of supports that establish security and meet basic needs for food, water, shelter, and other necessities. Without security, former child soldiers live in fear, and without access to food and other necessities, they may elect to return to the bush. The next layer of the pyramid includes family and community supports such as family tracing and reunification and the educational supports that are so important to former child soldiers. The third layer includes focused supports such as income generation and traditional cleansing rituals that address the needs of specific individuals but do not involve specialized treatment. The top layer includes specialized interventions to support the people who have been severely affected and who cannot function without therapeutic intervention. Although this is a smaller group, it is important to recognize that in a war zone it may include several thousand people who otherwise endure unacceptable suffering. This system of comprehensive psychosocial support is necessary for alleviating the suffering of formerly recruited children, fulfilling their rights, and enabling them to become functioning members of civilian society and voices for peace. (See Children and Armed Conflict: Strategic Review of Machel Study; Children, Psychosocial Interventions with; Psychosocial Impact of Political Violence.)

SEE ALSO: Child Soldiers and Mental Health; Children, Psychosocial Interventions with; Children and Armed Conflict: Strategic Review of Machel Study; Children and Human Rights; Children and Political Violence; Children and Resilience; Gangs and Political Violence, Children and Youth Involvement in; Girls in Armed Groups; Post-Conflict Psychosocial Intervention.

  • Betancourt, T.; Borisova, I.; Rubin-Smith, J.; Gingerish, T.; Williams, T.; Agnew-Blais, J. (2008). Psychosocial adjustment and social reintegration of children associated with armed forces and armed groups: The state of the field and future directions. Psychology Beyond Borders Austin, TX.
  • Boothby, N.; Crawford, J.; Halperin, J. (2006). Mozambican child soldier life outcome study: Lessons learned on rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. Global Public Health 1(1), 87-107.
  • Inter-Agency Standing Committee (2007). IASC guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. Inter-Agency Standing Committeae Geneva, Switzerland.
  • UNICEF (2007). The Paris Principles: Principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups. Author New York, NY.
  • Wessells, M. (2006). Child soldiers: From violence to protection. Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA.
  • Additional Resources
  • Annan, J.; Blattman, C.; Horton, R. (2006). The state of youth and youth protection in northern Uganda: Findings from the Survey for War Affected Youth. UNICEF Kampala, Uganda.
  • Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (2008). Child soldiers global report 2008. CSC London, UK.
  • Michael Wessells
    Wiley ©2011

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