War is nothing new, it's a part of human nature. Conflicts are being waged across the globe every single day, whether over politics, territory, religion or ethnic tensions. While the vast majority of men and women who fight in wars volunteer their services to their countries, there are more vulnerable members of society that are neither old enough to make the decision to willingly take up arms, nor strong enough to protect themselves from being exploited by the adults involved in conflict.
Children from all walks of life are the most vulnerable members of society, but children in war-torn regions, where even basic necessities are sometimes scarce, are at their most vulnerable, making them easy targets for governments, militias and armed bandits to force into conflict and exploit mercilessly. While official numbers are very difficult to ascertain, even one child soldier is too many. Here are ten countries with the worst track records for recruiting child soldiers.
Many of Chad’s child soldiers are recruited from the nearly half a million displaced people living in refugee camps due to the extensive amounts of violence the country has experience, internally, and also with Sudan. Border wars, proxy wars, political instability, poverty and famine make Chad a fertile ground for military and opposition groups to coerce or abduct children to fight their wars. Though tensions and violence in Chad have decreased over the past few years, child soldiers are still visible amongst the armed forces, and before the end of the civil war between the north and south, children as young as 13 were routinely involved in combat operations, with 10-year-olds serving as messengers and scouts. While the government of Chad has vowed to end the use of child soldiers in the country, there is still work to be done.
9 South Sudan
In a country that gained independence through civil war, South Sudan is now fighting a civil war of its own, and many, including children, are suffering extreme consequences. While the government of South Sudan has pledged to the United Nations to stop recruiting child soldiers, the fact remains, there are over 11,000 children fighting on either the government or rebel side of the conflict. Military personnel would routinely surround schools and force children out of the classroom and into the fight, and now, with most schools closed and many children left living in refugee camps with nothing to do or eat, it is even easier to expose their vulnerability, making the situation in South Sudan an extremely tenuous one for the country’s young people.
8 Central African Republic
It is unsurprising that another African nation on this list is landlocked by four other countries on this list that are guilty of recruiting child soldiers. Like many other nations on the African continent, the Central African Republic has been embroiled in civil war, precipitated by both ethnic and religious hostilities. After the government fell in 2013, the amount of child soldiers doubled in the country, rising to over 6,000. With approximately 400,000 people displaced by the conflict, there were fears that the number of child soldiers would increase even more dramatically. Thankfully, a ceasefire was brokered this past summer. It remains to be seen how long the truce holds.
In the Darfur region of Sudan, some of the worst instances of modern day ethnic atrocities have been committed. Since 2003 nearly 3 million people have been displaced amidst a campaign of genocide and systematic rape during an extremely vicious conflict. Amidst the violence, thousands of children have been abducted, and either forced, bought or sold, into becoming armed members of the conflict for both the Sudanese government and the rebel groups who have been fighting the government in Khartoum. While the average age of a child recruit in Darfur is around 15, there have been reports of children as young as 11 being directly involved in the violence. Though hostilities have considerably waned in 2014, there have been continued reports of violence in Darfur, and the Sudanese government has made little attempt to dismantle the use of child soldiers.
The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda has abducted over 30,000 children in the past twenty years to use as implements of murder, rape, torture and war. Led by warlord Joseph Kony, initially, the Lord’s Resistance Army was formed to combat the Uganda People's Defence Force in civil war, but has morphed their hostilities into a broader conflict including waging an ethnic war against tribes in the north of the African nation. In Uganda, young boys are abducted and forced into combat and terrorizing the civilian population, with many of them committing their first atrocities before reaching puberty. Young girls don’t fare much better, as many are abducted and become sex slaves. While the Lord’s Resistance Army is the worst offender when recruiting child soldiers, their opposition are not immune. The United Nations have also condemned the Uganda People's Defence Force for the nearly 5,000 child soldiers they have recruited.
Though the compulsory age of enlistment into the Bolivian Army is 18, one only needs to be 15 to willingly volunteer. In fact, during forced recruitment, children as young as 14 are believed to have been recruited forcibly into the Bolivian armed forces. Estimates suggest that nearly 40 percent of the Bolivian Army is younger than 18 years of age, while a staggering 20 percent of the military in the country is younger than 16 years old. While many of the child soldiers have apparently been conscripted to combat drug trafficking, it hasn’t prevented the children from suffering abuse at the hands of officials, or being forced into slave labour for private profit by government officials.
While the regime of Saddam Hussein was certainly guilty of recruiting child soldiers in Iraq, holding brutal boot camps where military and political training took place for youths between the age of 12 and 17, since the Ba’athist party’s fall following the U.S. led military operations against Iraq, the entire country has fallen into chaos. Various political, military and civilian groups have been vying for control and power in the oil-rich nation, all while fighting foreign intervention. Such widespread disruption of infrastructure has left more than a half of a million children out of school, and forced many to face the realities of combat, terror and suicide bombing. While there are no concrete numbers, coalition forces have admitted to both combating and detaining child soldiers during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In one of the most war torn countries on the planet, the recruitment of child soldiers is sadly all too commonplace. Ethnic, religious and civil wars have plagued Somalia for decades, during which human rights violations have been widely reported. The fate of all Somalis has dramatically suffered during the conflicts, with children suffering the most. Children disappear regularly, some as young as eight, with most ending up fighting for warlords who brainwash them and then keep them drugged, or in some cases pay them monthly, for their military service. It is not uncommon in some of the worst areas of Mogadishu to see ten-year-old children carrying AK47’s on street corners. While some parents have managed to send their children abroad to shield them from conflict, most poor Somalis have spent decades living in fear of the fate of their children when conflict erupts.
2 Democratic Republic of Congo
Another African nation seemingly in an endless cycle of conflict, the Democratic Republic of Congo has utilized an enormous amount of child soldiers during the civil wars that have plagued the nation. Though official fighting ended in 2002, fighting continues in pockets the Eastern provinces of the country. While Congolese militants have actually released estimates of potentially over 20,000 children from armed service, many other child soldiers were not so fortunate, forced to enlist full-time into service while still under the age of 18. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has vowed to stop child recruitment practices altogether after an International Criminal Court decision that found Congolese war criminal Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of recruiting child soldiers forced the Congolese government to address and tackle the problem, but thus far, the process has been slow.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been fighting various civil wars since 1948. With so many different ethnic groups in the country, each has vied for more power and territory at one point or another since the nation gained its independence from Britain. With those civil wars has come the inevitability of the recruitment of massive amounts of child soldiers, with Human Rights Watch citing the Myanmar as the world’s worst offender. As of 2011, more than 20 percent of the national army’s 350,000 soldiers were under the age of 18, and that figure does not even figure into the vast array of opposition forces that actively recruit child soldiers as well. Children are abducted riding public transportation, at schools, markets and other public places, and are threatened with prison if they do not follow orders. The new recruits are completely cut off from communicating with family, and some have been beaten to death for attempting to flee the camps they conduct their training in. In 2012 the government of Myanmar and the United Nations came to an agreement to end the recruitment of child soldiers in Myanmar, and release all children from armed service, a commitment Myanmar states it intends to honor.