Plight of the child soldier: facts, foundations and how to help

Updated Oct 02, 2020
“Man has created the ultimate cheap, expendable, yet sophisticated weapon, at the expense of humanity’s own future: its children… Desperate children, boys and girls, are cheap to sustain, have no real sense of fear, and are limitless in the perverse directions they can be manipulated through drugs and indoctrination since they have not yet developed a concept of justice and have been ripped away from their families to fend in the new perverted family of armed force.” —General Romeo Dallaire

The United Nations reports that one in six children—that’s 357 million girls and boys—live in areas of the world affected by war or armed conflict. Despite being least responsible for the outbreak of violent conflict, children are nevertheless disproportionately at risk of being affected by the violence and exploitation that occurs in war zones.

It is a commonly held belief that the majority of child soldiers are children who have been abducted or violently forced into armed conflict. While this can be true, it is more often circumstantial factors that leave a child with no choice but to join a militarized faction.

According to recent research by World Vision International, ending the recruitment of children into violent conflict is possible by addressing the root factors that push children into armed forces in the first place. Through the proactive creation of protective environments, we can strive to eliminate this grievous situation.

To help better understand the complicated situation children and their families face in areas of armed conflict, and to explore potential solutions for ending the plight of child soldiers, we will consider the following questions:
  1. What is a child soldier?
  2. How are child soldiers recruited?
  3. How many child soldiers are there?
  4. What are the effects of being a child soldier?
  5. What is Canada doing about child soldiers?
  6. What is World Vision doing about the issue of child soldiers?
  7. How can I help rescue child soldiers?  

1. What is a child soldier?
Child soldiers are children (individuals under the age of 18) who are used for military purposes. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and international human rights law, no child under 18 may be recruited into armed forces (government military) or armed rebel groups (militias and gangs).
The term “child soldier” encompasses a wide range of roles in which children – boys and girls – are used in military conflict. The responsibilities of a child soldier can include armed combatant, spy, cook, porter, messenger and ‘wife’ (for sexual exploitation). Regardless of the responsibility, each role has long-term, negative effects on the child.
 Former child soldier teenage boys appear sitting on a dirt ground with their backs to the camera, waiting to receive assistance.The United Nations reports that one in six children—that’s 357 million girls and boys—live in areas of the world affected by war or armed conflict. Photo: Mark Nonkes

2. How are child soldiers recruited?
Although child soldiers are often forcefully recruited, it is not the primary way that children, both male and female, become involved in armed conflict. Participation frequently comes down to despair.

While there is usually an element of “choice” involved, that term is used very loosely. It is far more common that coercion, in partnership with desperate circumstances, plays a role in this choice. Therefore, when trying to end the scourge of child soldiers, it is necessary to work not only with armed groups, but to consider other means by which the cycle can end.

Addressing the root cause of the child soldier problem means tackling the numerous other factors that impact recruitment. These factors can include:
Lack of educational and employment opportunities
In areas of armed conflict, people can find themselves in refugee camps, internally displaced person camps, or in other informal settlements where education is severely limited or non-existent. A lack of education often means a lack of income opportunities. Thus, joining an armed group becomes an employment or survival strategy.

Poverty and lack of basic necessities
For child soldiers, personal financial or familial economic situations rank high as a reason to join. When food and resources become scarce, the alluring promise of barracks that offer a warm bed and readily available food is difficult to resist.

Poverty is also a root cause of girls becoming child soldiers. In fact, far more girls join than previously thought, though they are recruited for different reasons. Girls are used as wives and girlfriends of the soldiers and are commonly pushed into those relationships. Girls are also often used as spies.

Young child soldier boy sits on a dirt ground holding a machine gun with his back to the camera.
While the physical effects of being a child soldier are varied, the horrors of armed conflict do leave long-lasting psychological effects. Photo: Lisi Emmanuel Alex
Poor sense of belonging or lack of familial relationships
In times of uncertainty or displacement due to armed conflict, children often leave school, their homes, villages and even countries. These circumstances can lead to a sense of isolation. When this happens, children may experience a loss of personal identity because a child’s sense of self is directly connected with his or her social surroundings. Joining an armed group and becoming a child soldier provides a sense of identity in that they now belong to a community, however misguided.

Joining an armed group can also bring status. Children may return from fighting with shoes, money and other status symbols that are influential in recruiting others. Their newfound prestige can also lead to positions of leadership and influence that they would never achieve otherwise.
Community and family expectations
When there is protracted violence in a region, communities can feel the need to protect themselves because of the unpredictable movement of armed groups. Community members often feel pressure to play their part. As a result, children whose families have been affected by violence may choose to seek revenge by joining an opposing group.

As well, other family members may already be involved in a conflict situation and children will recognize this as an opportunity for deeper connection.
Ongoing insecurity and displacement
During times of protracted violence, when families are internally displaced or have to cross borders as refugees, their lives become chaotic and disruptive. This chaos can result in separation between family members, including children from their parents. This separation leaves children without any means of safety or security, so they choose to become child soldiers as a form of protection.

3. How many child soldiers are there?
Although there are tens of thousands of boys and girls who have been recruited as child soldiers, statistics are difficult to come by. The exact number is unknown as most data dates back nearly two decades. However, we do know that:
4. What are the effects of being a child soldier?
While the physical effects of being a child soldier are varied, the horrors of armed conflict do leave long-lasting psychological effects. When children are repeatedly exposed to traumatic stress during development, it leaves them with mental and physical ill-health, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe personality changes. In some cases, children may be forced to take drugs that can change the child’s temperament and negatively impact their personality. There are also alarming cases of fistula and physical maiming, however the principal damage is psychological.

A young man, former child soldier in South Sudan, leans against a broken brick wall.
Seventeen-year-old Yuda is one of 700 children in South Sudan who is part of a World Vision run reunification and reintegration programme for children formerly associated with armed groups. Photo: Mark Nonkes

5. What is Canada doing about child soldiers?
On February 12, 2019, International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, the government of Canada released a statement from the Prime Minister regarding Canada’s position on child soldiers. In the statement, the government reiterated Canada’s commitment to protecting children from the “heinous practice” of being used in armed conflict.

6. What is World Vision doing about the issue of child soldiers?
At World Vision, we believe that all children should have the opportunity to experience life in all its fullness. To that end, our strategies to end the recruitment and use of children in armed forces and militant groups are most effective when they are part of a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach.
World Vision programming focuses on prevention by addressing the primary drivers of recruitment and strengthening the protective environment around children. By doing so, children are less susceptible to not only recruitment, but also other forms of community or family violence. We do, however, offer reintegration programming to support former child soldiers, in line with our general child protection approach.
World Vision works to prevent children from being recruited into armed forces by strengthening child protection systems, promoting peacebuilding and increasing access to education and livelihood opportunities for entire communities. We take a holistic, rights-based systems approach, addressing the root causes of violence against children by strengthening the protective environment and building children’s capacity to protect themselves.
Through programs, World Vision supports partners including government agencies, civil society groups and community-based organizations, as well as other NGOs, to work together to create a protective environment that cares for and supports all children, especially the most vulnerable. We accomplish this through a variety of approaches, including:
  • Educating and empowering girls and boys as powerful agents of change, by providing opportunities for children to increase their decision-making and coping skills, and by promoting peace and social cohesion.
  • Strengthening families and caregivers to be the first line of protection and care for children by growing social support networks, and linking them to economic and social assistance, universal birth registration and other family support systems.
  • Partnering with communities to address the root causes of violence against children, including inequality, inadequate social protection systems, lack of economic opportunity, conflict and instability, and harmful attitudes, beliefs and practices that tolerate and spread violence. 
The reintegration of children formerly associated with military forces into their families and communities is a crucial step for the well-being of former child soldiers, as well as helping break the cycle of violence.  
Some examples of World Vision’s international programming include:
  • The Children as Peacebuilders project in the Central African Republic has worked with over 5,000 vulnerable children, including those formerly associated with armed groups, to campaign against child recruitment, increase access to education and livelihood assistance, and promote peace for conflict-affected children. Through the project, children’s peace clubs have been established, bringing together Christian and Muslim children to learn about conflict resolution, forgiveness, non-violent expression and civic participation. Conflict-affected children are also provided support in accessing formal and informal educational opportunities, and former child soldiers have been reintegrated into their communities.
A young man that has suffered a permanent injury to his right leg is working fixing a motorcycle.
Sartourne, 19, lost his leg in a violent attack while he was a child soldier in the Central African Republic. Now, he has been rehabilitated and received vocational training as a mechanic at a World Vision Peace Club. Photo: Chelsea Maclachlan
  • In South Sudan, World Vision, in partnership with UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, is leading on the reunification, recovery and reintegration of over 600 children. We operate two interim care centres for unaccompanied/separated children with no known families. We’re also providing case management services by qualified social workers, tailored counselling and psychosocial support for child survivors of sexual violence, and psychosocial support through Child Friendly Spaces.
  • In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the Rebound Project annually supports 80 children formerly associated with armed groups and the sex trade. Children are reintegrated into community life through the provision of psychosocial support, life skills classes and basic vocational training. At the end of the program, participants are provided with small grants to start businesses. The project also works to strengthen local child protection systems and supports family reunification and temporary placement with host families as needed.
7. How can I help rescue child soldiers?
Sponsorship: Breaking the cycle of violence against children is complicated. World Vision does not directly rescue child soldiers. Instead, through child sponsorship, your monthly support addresses the root causes of violence by providing a child with access to education and healthcare and much more, helping protect her rights and empowering her for the future. Learn more about child sponsorship.

Donate: You may be wondering how to help children in areas of armed conflict. While solutions are complex, making a difference is not. You can support vulnerable children and their families through our Raw Hope initiative. Your donation will help provide life-saving essentials and support to children and families under the threat of abuse and exploitation.