Child Soldiers

Cracking Down on Child Recruitment

Child Protection
Feature Image: 

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
Feature Image: 

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.


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.


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
Feature Image: 

"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.

Learn More

Find out more about UNICEF's work for child soldiers

Watch Video

Child Soldiers

Syndicate content