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Child Soldiers

Helping child soldiers lay down their guns for good

Child Protection
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Soldier. Suicide bomber. Sex slave. No child should be forced to become these things.

On the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, UNICEF and the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict are using our voices to protect the children recruited and used by armed groups - especially as conflicts around the world become more brutal, intense and widespread. 

Tens of thousands of boys and girls are associated with armed forces and armed groups in conflicts in over 20 countries around the world. Many have been victims of, witness to and forced participants in acts of unspeakable brutality.

In Afghanistan, despite progress to end the recruitment and use of children in national security forces, children continue to be recruited by parties to conflict such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban. In the most extreme cases, children have been used as suicide bombers, to make weapons and transport explosives.

1406 Mohammad* stands with his AK 47 in Afghanistan. He wanted to go to school, but to support his family he had sacrificed his freedom and childhood to join an armed group. A UNICEF-supported demobilization programme will help him return to society.

In the Central African Republic, boys and girls as young as eight years old were recruited and used by all parties to the conflict to take direct part in inter-ethnic and religious violence.

1411 After being recruited by an armed group in CAR, Zainab* was frequently sexually abused by male soldiers. She is now recovering at a UNICEF-supported centre, where she receives care and basic business training to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant. “All she talks about is going back home,” said a child protection specialist who works at the centre.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations documented new cases of recruitment of children by multiple armed groups operating in the eastern part of the country. The children, in some cases as young as 10, were recruited and used as combatants, or in support functions such as porters and cooks. Girls were reportedly used as sex slaves or were victims of other forms of sexual violence.

1416 Mwindo* (left) spent three years in a militia in the DRC, making small marks with a razor blade on the arms and foreheads of new recruits, a ritual which was believed to protect the soldiers from bullets. He learned how to use weapons and carried an Uzi. During a confrontation with other insurgents, he killed a man who lunged at him in a forest. The UNICEF-supported centre provides him with medical and psychosocial care, as well as family tracing and reunification services.

In Iraq and Syria, the advances by ISIL and the proliferation of armed groups have made children even more vulnerable to recruitment. Children as young as 12, are undergoing military training and have been used as informants, to patrol, to man checkpoints and to guard strategic locations. In some cases, they have been used as suicide bombers and to carry out executions.

Together, we are working to release and rehabilitate child soldiers.

In South Sudan children aged 11 to 17 years old have been fighting for up to four years and many have never attended school. In the last year, 12,000 children, mostly boys, have been recruited and used as soldiers by armed forces and groups in South Sudan as a whole. Just recently, the gradual release of approximately 3,000 children from the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction began. More than 500 children have been released in the past two weeks and are receiving support to return to civilian life. Further releases are expected over the next month.

1421 James* is released from an armed group in South Sudan. “Our enemies killed my sister, my uncle and other family members. So I joined the Cobra Faction,” he said. “I really want to go to school now. I have never been to school, and after I finish school, I want to help the people in my community – to help them get food. If I had children, I would never let them be soldiers.”

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UNICEF works with partners to support children once they are released from armed groups. This includes reunifying them with their families and providing them with health care, basic necessities and psychological support as well as access to education and training programmes.

Join us to help children lay down their guns and walk towards a life of freedom.

Help us rehabiliate a child soldier today.

*Name changed.

Cracking Down on Child Recruitment

Child Protection
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In a landmark ruling last March, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was convicted by the International Criminal Court of war crimes for recruiting children into his armed movement. It was the first such verdict delivered by the ICC since its establishment a decade ago.

UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Pernille Ironside has secured the release of 25,000 child soldiers throughout the DRC. She reports on the ruling’s significance to children around the world affected by war:

Pernille has travelled by foot, boat, helicopter, propeller plane and armoured tank to some of the most challenging and insecure areas in the world – to secure the release of tens of thousands of child soldiers from armed groups. Learn more...

The Compass

Child Protection
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Pernille Ironside is a Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF in emergencies. She has travelled by foot, boat, helicopter, propeller plane and armoured tank to some of the most challenging and insecure areas in the world – to secure the release of tens of thousands of child soldiers from armed groups.

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We were surrounded by several thousand armed soldiers – hours from anything. I knew my compass might be the only thing to get me back to safety if things went wrong.

We were there to release children who were forced to be soldiers. I’ll never forget the young boy who told me  about how he was made to kill. His eyes told me how much he’d already endured. And despite his hardened façade, he was still a child – a child who deserved a better future.

That day we helped to release him – and we gave him the chance to be a child again.

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This is my compass. I’m proud to carry it anywhere for UNICEF. Because no child is too far.

326 Pernille and her compass helped to secure the release of thousands of child soldiers throughout eastern DRC. Thanks to UNICEF’s programs, these young girls and boys are now on the road to recovery and reintegration. © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0092/Asselin

You can save a life this very moment. Join us today.

International Day of Peace: A Child Soldier Leaves War Behind

Child Protection
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"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children."                                                                                       Mahatma Gandhi

Mustafa wipes his tears with the green camouflage headscarf he has worn for the past year and a half – time he spent with an armed group in the Central African Republic.

His older brother, who is 18 and remains a member of the group, stands in a crowd that has gathered to see Mustafa and two other boys leave. He is visibly emotional about Mustafa’s departure, but tries not to let it show.

During the drive to N’dele, the car stops several times so that Mustafa can be sick. Halfway there, he throws his headscarf out the window. His life of war is over. A new, unknown future is unfolding.

Mustafa is welcomed at a UNICEF transit centre in N’dele by other children who have been released from armed groups. Here he will benefit from psychosocial services, and either return to school or learn a vocational skill. Soon, he will be reunited with his family.

291 © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0895/Sokol

UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War Ishmael Beah.

Some years ago, Ishmael Beah, UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War,  found himself in a similar position. He was forcibly recruited as a child during a civil war in Sierre Leone and later wrote a bestselling book about his experiences, A Long Way Gone.

He endeavors to raise awareness about the challenges these children face. “I came to Central African Republic to shed light on the issues of children in armed conflict, which is a very dire situation here, and also to spend time with some of the young people who are coming from these groups and have been released,” he said.

294 © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0890/Sokol

UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War Ishmael Beah sits among recently released former child soldiers.

The recovery of these children in the Central African Republic is part of efforts by a UN task force – mandated by the UN Security Council – that releases and rehabilitates children associated with armed groups.

Yet many communities in Central African Republic are confronted with war and violence on a daily basis.

According to UNICEF Chief of Child Protection in the country, Fosca Giulidori, “the presence of these groups is very strong in the communities, and because there is such limited infrastructure and access to social services, children are particularly vulnerable to being recruited into armed groups because few other options exist for them.”

292 © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0888/Sokol

Ishmael Beah reviews vocational training offered to former child soldiers at the transit centre.

“When you are conditioned to function a certain way, it takes time to know that something else is possible... I went through that myself,” says Mr. Beah, who spent five days with the children conducting sessions about loss, war and reintegration.

“But it takes hard work. I want to leave behind the message that it is not easy, it takes perseverance, but in the end, you can get to the point when you feel like there is something better. This all starts by leaving behind your weapons.”

Adapted from text by Suzanne Beukes.

UNICEF advocates for the protection of children in armed conflict

Child Protection

Although by its very nature the exact numbers are difficult to quantify, it is estimated today that as many as 300,000 child soldiers – some as young as eight years old, are involved in more than 30 conflicts around the world.

Child soldiers are used as combatants, messengers, porters, cooks and to provide sexual services. Some are forcibly recruited or abducted; others are driven to join by poverty, abuse and discrimination, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against themselves and their families.

UNICEF focuses on the three key steps to assisting child soldiers:

  • Disarmament by taking the guns off children
  • Demobilisation by ensuring children are removed from participation in armed forces
  • Reintegration by assisting former child soldiers to integrate back into society and the community.

UNICEF works with key local partners to assist formerly abducted children by supporting centres that provide family tracing and psychosocial counselling. UNICEF assists such centres in the provision of shelter materials, medical services, psychosocial counselling support and vocational skills-training, and facilitates the coordination between centres.

We also work to ensure that community members have the tools they need to be the centre of support. This is essential to giving the formerly abducted their lives back.

The open participation of community members is an integral element in creating a protective environment for returnees and their families. Together, communities can address stigmatisation, limited economic opportunity and other common challenges faced by formerly abducted persons, and look together for solutions to reduce their vulnerability.

Since the mid-1980s, UNICEF and its partners have advocated for, and secured the release of, children from armed forces in conflict-affected countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

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Find out more about UNICEF's work for child soldiers

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Child Soldiers

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