Children as Weapons of War

"If there is any lesson we can draw from the experience of the past decade, it is that the use of child soldiers is far more than a humanitarian concern, that its impact lasts far beyond the time of actual fighting; and the scope of the problem vastly exceeds the numbers of children directly involved."-Kofi Annan[i]

Child soldiering is a pervasive problem. Children have been recruited to fight in wars on every continent. It has been suggested that there could be as many as 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.[ii] Although commonly associated with African wars, child soldiers have been recruited to fight in conflicts in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

What is a child soldier? Strictly defined, a child soldier is someone under the age of 18 who labors for an armed group in a conflict. This is not limited to fighting. Children are recruited to serve as auxiliary personnel, to cook, to carry, to entertain combatants (often sexually), to serve in a guerilla capacity as intelligence gatherers, as well as fighters.[iii] Some critics would argue that the age of majority is subjective, especially in non-western cultures, however, it is an international norm to recognize 18 as the cusp of adulthood.[iv]

Recruitment - forced or voluntary? It is generally acknowledged that children do not have the ability to rationally choose to volunteer for involvement in military engagements. In this case, there is no such thing as consent. This is due in part to the fact that children depend upon adults to make rational choices on their behalf, and respect adults as rational decision makers and figures of authority.

Why would armed groups recruit children to participate and fight? As previously mentioned, children respect the authority of adults. They follow orders and are easily manipulated. This makes them ideal soldiers - following orders without question, and without fully grasping the consequences of their actions. Death seems less real, and an unlikely outcome of participating in armed conflict. Some former child soldiers have reported that their commanders gave them amulets or drugs and explained to them that wearing an amulet or taking drugs would make them impervious to bullets - something an adult would be hesitant to believe.

In many cases children are recruited as auxiliary personnel - allowing adults to fight instead of fill support roles. Children are also ideally suited for covert military action, as they are less likely to be suspected of being spies or involved with military activities.

Why is child soldiering a problem? Using children as weapons of war thoroughly destroys social fabric. There is a disproportionate opportunity cost for the child - by participating in armed conflict, they are forced to withdraw from civilian life, are often forcibly removed from their families and communities, and are not given the opportunity to attend school.[v] Some aspects of learning to be a healthy functioning member of society is observed - learned from watching family and community members function within a social code. This process is disrupted when a child is recruited to fight and subjected to an entirely different social code ripe with violence. Furthermore, by limiting a child's ability to be formally or informally educated either academically or by trade, life in the military ensures that only one trade is learned: military. Once a conflict ends, children who grew up learning the military trade have no other recourse. As adults, it is difficult for former child soldiers to return to school or learn a new trade. They must now support themselves and whatever family they may have. A vicious cycle of violence ensues with many former child soldiers using the only trade they know to procure for themselves. Unfortunately, for many former child soldiers, rehabilitation and reintegration services are non-existent after a period of prolonged civil conflict. This stage of the DDR process is often when funding dries up.[vi] With no viable option to rejoin society as fully functioning members participating in rebuilding social fabric and the economy, many have stated that they might as well return to the gun as a means of providing. [vii] Examples of relapse into civil war after only a short period of time are rife. Recently, we have seen generational relapses in conflicts in Liberia and the DRC.

[i] Sessay, Amadu (Ed.). (2003). Civil Wars, Child Soldiers and Post Conflict Peace Building in West Africa. College Press and Publishers, Ltd., pg 137. [ii] Amnesty International. (2007). Child Soldiers. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from [iii] The following definition from the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers is employed, “any person under the age of 18 who is a member of or attached to government armed forces or any other regular or irregular armed force or armed political group, whether or not an armed conflict exists. Child soldiers perform a range of tasks including participation in combat, laying mines and explosives; scouting, spying, acting as decoys, couriers or guards; training, drill or other preparations; logistics and support functions, portering, cooking and domestic labour; and sexual slavery or other recruitment for sexual purposes.” Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. (2007). Questions and Answers. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from [iv] The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets the age of majority at 18 years of age. It states that children and youth below 18 require special protection because of their physical and mental immaturity. Virtually all nation states have pledged to implement the provisions of the Convention. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2003). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from [v] Blattman, Christopher, and Jeannie Annan. (2007). The Consequences of Child Soldiering: Institute of Development Studies HiCN, Working Paper #22. University of Sussex, pg 2. [vi] DDR stands for Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration, and sometimes includes a fourth “R”, Rehabilitation. [vii] Personal communication between the author and a group of Liberian former child soldiers, June 2007.

1 comment (Add your own)

1. Johana wrote:
I'm writing from the States. I just wathced the story on NBC Nightly News (U.S. national T.V. news) on the Nowzad dogs who were just flown to New York to reunite with their soldiers. I sobbed through the entire story that was the most WONDERFUL thing I have seen in a long time. I then went online and found the story there, wathced it another 3 or 4 times, and, again, sobbed through the entire clip. I knew I had to investigate your group further. I've subscribed to your mailing list and am looking for the proper place in this website to make a donation to the Nowzad dogs. BLESS YOU for this incredible humane undertaking!!

Thu, March 29, 2012 @ 3:56 PM

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