In 2008, the United States Government passed a law called the Child Soldier Protection Act (CSPA). The law was enacted in an effort to curb the employment of an estimated 300,000 child soldiers by readily identifying countries that had explicitly recruited and used child soldiers within their ranks.
For all intents and purposes, a child soldier is any person under 18 years of age who: “takes a direct part in hostilities as a member of governmental armed forces”; “has been compulsorily recruited into governmental armed forces”; “has been voluntarily recruited into governmental armed forces”; or “has been recruited in hostilities by armed forces distinct from the armed forces of a state”. To put it simply, if a child is involved in military combat in any way they are considered a child soldier. Children are used as militants for a number of reasons, though largely because the young are easy to manipulate and mould – especially those who are orphaned or separated from their families. These children can be used as “fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes”. It's often female child soldiers, who comprise roughly 40% of child soldiers around the world, who traditionally perform the sexual roles; many are provided to older militants as wives or slaves.
Weapons traditionally used by militia in child soldier-employing countries are not terribly sophisticated – AK-47’s, M16’s, AR-15’s, land mines, etc. – so that they can be quickly and easily explained to a child. To add to their simplicity, these weapons possess few moving parts -which, further, adds to their longevity. Cheap production costs means they can be produced in massive numbers and shipped nearly anywhere in the world. The proliferation of these guns, their simplicity and their durability, makes these weapons perfect for child soldiers in the eyes of militant leaders. Hopefully, the holes in their logic are painfully obvious and need not be explained in this article.
There are numerous charitable organizations, humanitarian groups, transnational organizations, governmental initiatives and social movements attempting to bring about an end to the use of child soldiers. Many of these organizations specialize in the rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers; that is, if they ever make it out. The probabilities of children surviving combat are slim due to the fact that children are, of course, at a disadvantage of skills and experience. More often than not, they become statistics of inflated conflict casualties.
The CSPA list published by the United States’ government lists a set of countries that are known to recruit and utilize child soldiers in active combat. It is important to make the distinction here that this list consists of government forces, not independent or opposition militia, who engage in the use of child soldiers in conflict zones. The obvious advantage of such a distinction is that targeting governments makes them accountable to the international community who can enforce repercussions and punishments for imposing the horrors of war on innocent and impressionable children.
In 2013, the CSPA was responsible for sanctions being placed on Burma, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria, and Rwanda – all for the recruitment and implementation of child soldiers into their official government ranks. Although these governments vehemently deny the allegations, the United Nations (UN and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports heavily indicate their involvement in forced recruitment of child soldiers. To give you, faithful reader, an idea of what the situation is like in these countries, below we've listed the armies that recruit the highest volume of these exploited child soldiers.
10 South Sudan (2,000-9,000 Child Soldiers)
A 2001 report indicates that despite having demobilized and airlifted 2,500 child soldiers out of the conflict zone, South Sudan still has an estimated 9,000 child soldiers actively involved in combat. It’s easier to see why when we understand that this number is considered alongside the 200,000 children who have been displaced from their homes due to the conflict. UN officials estimate that 10,000 people have been killed due to the conflict in South Sudan since the conflict reignited late last year. International organizations have been effective in rescuing and demobilizing child soldiers in South Sudan and reports appear to be promising to ensure that the use of child soldiers is reduced even further.
9 Central African Republic (CAR) (6,000 Child Soldiers)
The UN reports that there may be more than 6,000 child soldiers actively involved in the Central African Republic’s (CAR) conflict as of January 2014. The situation for these child soldiers grows grizzlier as the situation in CAR escalates – 2 children have already been found beheaded amongst the combatants. Many reports indicate that children are directly being targeted amongst the violence currently engulfing the country. The ethno-religious conflict in the country is on the verge of becoming genocide if fighting does not slow down sometime in the near future. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced as a result of the 2-year conflict.
8 Burundi (6,000-7,000 Child Soldiers)
Burundi’s civil war raged from 1993 until 2005 when a peace treaty was signed by the major belligerents in the conflict, but there has been sporadic fighting in the country since the agreement was reached. Among the thousands who have been displaced due to the conflict, refugee children are recruited by both rebel and government forces to partake in the fighting. The tensions following elections in 2010 brought about fears that the drums of civil war may be beating again but the country managed to avoid plunging itself entirely into another dark era. Demobilization and reintegration efforts have been weak, though, and there are an estimated 6,000-7,000 child soldiers still in the ranks of the major opposition and government troops.
7 Chad (7,000 – 10,000 Child Soldiers)
Despite government efforts to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers, an estimated 7,000-10,000 children are still actively serving within military factions in the Chadian conflict. The conflict started following a 2005 legislation change which allowed for Chadian President Idriss Deby to run for a third term for office. The ensuing tensions caused massive intrastate infighting between separatist rebel groups who opposed the central government. The Chadian government has been accused of recruiting child soldiers for their active conflict as well as a proxy conflict between Chad and Sudan. Recent developments have seen the government work with the UN and other humanitarian organizations to initiate and implement large child soldier demobilization efforts.
6 Afghanistan (8,000 Child Soldiers)
As many as 8,000 children have been estimated to have been associated with armed groups in Afghanistan. US reports indicate that children were used by terrorist groups on the front lines and even as suicide bombers. The Taliban has reportedly used children as young as three years old in the current internal conflicts that have left the country in shambles. Since 2003, UNICEF has been tasked with implementing and mobilizing procedures to demobilize and reintegrate children but the process is slow and arduous. Their program “aimed to demobilize 5,000 child soldiers, and provide support…to…10,000” more.
5 Sudan (19,500-22,000 Child Soldiers)
The government is reportedly utilizing around 17,000 child soldiers in the current Sudanese conflict while the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) are employing between 2,500 to 5,000 children within their ranks. Children are used on the front lines, in support roles, as sex slaves, and in a plethora of other positions too inarguably atrocious for any child to justifiably have to endure. The current genocide in the western province of Darfur has claimed over “400,000 lives and displaced over 2,500,000 people”. Reportedly, 100 people die each day from the conflict. The Sudanese government denies these allegations while the SPLA claims that they have “demobilized over 16,000 children,” but the rebel group is reported to have maintained recruitment efforts in the time that children were being demobilized.
4 Rwanda (20,000 Child Soldiers)
The Rwandan genocide has recruited a horrifying 20,000 child soldiers to the ethnic conflict. The Rwandan government claims that they have ceased all child recruitment tactics but reports indicate that there have been many instances of “sporadic recruitment” as the central government clashes with Hutu rebels, and further recruitment as the Rwandan government allegedly supports the M23 rebels in DRC. The United States government has decided to take action by cutting military funding to the Rwandan government for their involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers. A US official stated that this was done in an effort to curb the recruitment of child soldiers around the globe and to pressure governments into following suit.
3 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (30,000 Child Soldiers)
In 2013, 163 children were rescued from recruitment by armed groups in the DRC who were aged up to 17 years of age. Despite the efforts of the 20,000 UN troops deployed in DRC, there are still an estimated 30,000 active child soldiers currently imbued into the country’s internal conflicts. Government efforts have stemmed the official recruitment of child soldiers but children still play a large role in the atrocities committed within this war. Rebel group Mayi Mayi Bakata Katanga is the most notable belligerent highly involved in the recruitment of children into their ranks but they are joined by other regional armed groups.
2 Burma (50,000 Child Soldiers)
Thought to have the highest number of child soldiers in the world, Burma (Myanmar) is notorious for the forced recruitment and implementation of soldiers under 18. In 2001, of the 476,000 government armed forces an estimated 50,000 child soldiers were indicated to be active militants in the country's civil war. Nationwide, 10,000-15,000 more were recruited each year at the height of the conflict between 1996 -1998. The conflict in Burma has hints of both political and ethnic conflict that started in 1948 resulting in one of the longest running civil wars in the world. In past years, militant forces have begun releasing many child soldiers in keeping with UN and other international peace agreements.
1 Somalia (200,000 Child Soldiers)
Somalia’s civil war has lasted a breathtaking 23 years since the collapse of the central government. In that much time the country has been paradoxically overrun by warlords who rule with an iron fist but are prone to losing power as quickly as they win it. Different groups have attempted to quell the situation in Somalia – the UN, the United States, the African Union, the UN in conjunction with the US – but attempts to bring order have done little more than stir the violent pot of war, crime, and poverty.
Amongst the warring factions child soldier recruitment has been reported to have reached an estimated 200,000 children actively involved in combat – mostly used as “cannon fodder” to draw fire from older soldiers. The mind-boggling number of child soldiers is primarily affiliated with rebel groups such as the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab group who controlled the capital city of Mogadishu. With no rule of law and an almost nonexistent central government, it is next to impossible to implement child soldier-demobilization efforts in the war-torn country.