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Crimes of War - Educator's Guide: Child soldiers

Corresponding Chapters in Crimes of War:

"Child Soldiers" by Anna Cataldi and Jimmie Briggs (pp. 95-98)
"Children as Killers" by Corinne Dufka (p. 99)

Essential question: Have international laws and treaties been effective in protecting children from military recruitment during war?

Learning objectives:

  • Students will have a better understanding of who child soldiers are, including what their lives are like and the challenges that they face as child soldiers 
  • Students will learn about the international laws, conventions, and treaties that protect children in times of war and at risk of coercion into forced labor
  • Students will learn about the rehabilitation of child soldiers in a post-conflict environment


This chapter discusses the international conventions that protect children from military recruitment.  It will engage students in a dialogue about the steps taken by international bodies to ensure the well-being of civilians during conflict, in particular child soldiers. The chapters from Crimes of War reference above may serve as references and as supplements for a deeper understanding of the issues. For more information on the topic of child soldiers, refer to the "Additional Resources" section at the end of this chapter.

Marcus Bleasdale



It is estimated that over 300,000 children under the age of 18, both boys and girls, are involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide.[1] According to the Cape Town Principles [2] developed under the auspices of UNICEF, a child soldier is defined as "any child - boy or girl - under 18 years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including, but not limited to: cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members. It includes girls and boys recruited for sexual purposes and/or forced marriage."

Child soldiers are a specific population of forced labor and enlistment of children into armed groups is prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Children, many as young as eight years old, are kidnapped, coerced, and conscripted into armed groups because of limited opportunities for jobs, education, housing, or health care or because they are persuaded that violence is the only chance for political, social, and economic change. Often, child soldiers are forced to participate in conflicts under threat of violence against them or their families. Other times, children join armed groups because of lack of economic opportunity.

An increasing number of children are involved in armed conflicts with great physical and psychological implications. Africa has the highest number of child soldiers. However, UNICEF has also found an alarming number of child soldiers in the East Asia-Pacific Region. They also discovered that Burma (Myanmar) has more children soldiers than any other country in the world. It is estimated that there are 70,000 children in the Burmese state army alone, in addition to the 7,000 children fighters in opposition armed groups.

There are several branches of international law that forbid the recruitment of child soldiers. In 1977, the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions set 15 as the minimum age for recruitment or use in armed conflicts. Article 77 of Additional Protocol I, states that parties to a conflict "shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them in to their armed forces." The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines part of a war crime as "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" (Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi)); and in the case of an internal armed conflict, "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities" (Article 8(2)(e)(vii))."

International human rights law also addresses the issue of child soldiers. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), created in 1989, is the primary instrument and serves to protect children from being recruited as child soldiers. It defines a child as anyone under the age of 18. An optional protocol was created to outline the specifics of the CRC. The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict was adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 25, 2000 and came into force February 12, 2002. One hundred seventeen countries are party to the treaty and an additional 32 countries (including the United States) have signed but not ratified it.

The most recent Optional Protocol does the following: 

  • Calls on all states to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not yet attained the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities
  • Bans forced recruitment and conscription under 18
  • Requires states to raise their minimum age for voluntary recruitment to at least 16 and preferably 18
  • Prevents states from unilaterally lowering their military recruitment age
  • Requires specific safeguards for voluntary recruitment, such as proof of age and parental consent
  • Calls on non-state actors to stop all recruitment and use of children under 18[3]

Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers

The trauma of being a child soldiers results in any number of psychological problems. Research shows that the experience of war may have a profound impact on the personality development of an individual and how they see the world. Children who have participated in war often show regressive or aggressive behavior with a tendency towards violence.[4] Moreover, child soldiers often develop skills that allow them to survive in a war environment, but not in a more peaceful society. The severity and duration of a wartime environment may also result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD refers to the psychological and physical problems which can sometimes follow particularly threatening or distressing events including: repeated and intrusive memories of the distressing event, the experience of flashbacks or nightmares, physical reactions such as sweating or shaking, avoidance of reminders of the distressing event, sleeping and or concentration problems.[5]

The rehabilitation of child soldiers in a post-conflict environment is varied. One method is based on the model for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of child soldiers. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers[6] describes DDR in the following manner:

Disarmament: The collection of small arms and light and heavy weapons within a conflict zone. It frequently entails weapons collection, assembly of combatants and development of arms management programs, including their safe storage and sometimes their destruction. Because many child soldiers do not carry their own weapons, disarmament should not be a prerequisite for the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers.

Demobilization: The formal and controlled discharge of soldiers from the army or from an armed group. In demobilizing children the objectives should be to verify the child's participation in armed conflict, to collect basic information to establish the child's identity for family tracing, to assess priority needs, and to provide the child with information about what is likely to happen next.

Reintegration: A long-term process which aims to give children a viable alternative to their involvement in armed conflict and help them resume life in the community. Elements of reintegration include family reunification (or finding alternative care if reunification is impossible), providing education and training, devising appropriate strategies for economic and livelihood support and in some cases providing psycho-social support.

The DDR model has been used throughout the world and, in particular, West Africa.

Another rehabilitation model has been used by a Mozambican non-governmental organization, Reconstruindo a Esperanša (Rebuilding Hope). Rebuilding Hope uses a process that involves the collaboration of community leaders, Western-trained psychologists, and local curandeiros (healers).[7]  The process is based on the principle that all societies and cultures have developed, created, and learned mechanisms to deal with their specific problems in different spheres of life and that in order for a community to rebuild itself from trauma, one must first ask "how is this society or community already using its own resources to overcome or deal with the problem?" The organization focuses on providing psychological assistance and promoting community reintegration following 16 years of war in Mozambique.

Rebuilding Hope specifically encourages and depends on the involvement and participation of community religious authorities, local teachers, and parents. With the help of traditional local and religious leaders, the organization connects with local curandeiros when individuals with PTSD feel they need traditional purification rituals to wash away the bad spirits. In addition, the traditional healers purify their patients and send them to the psychologists for additional support. The result is an integrated support system involving a traditional healing process where children are reintegrated into their families and communities as rehabilitated people, while the psychologists develop sustainability methods for mental and emotional well-being. The result is a symbiotic model of psychotherapeutic interventions that includes the local knowledge and culture.[8]


Discussion questions

1.  How is a child defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child? Do you agree or disagree with any parts of this definition? If so, which ones and why?

2. What is the definition of a child soldier?

3. What are some of the reasons that Somalia and the United States have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

4. Why do you think a child might become a child soldier? How do these reasons pose potential obstacles to international conventions designed to stop child soldiering?

5. This chapter mentions several strategies for helping a former child soldier re-integrate back into a community. Which of these strategies do you think are most promising, and why? 

6. Before studying this unit on child soldiers, how much did you know about the current situation of child soldiers around the world? Do you think your community knows about the issue of child soldiers? How important do you think it is for your community to know about this issue? Why or why not?

7. How do you think that countries that do not have child soldiers and have never experienced child soldiers should react to those countries that do have child soldiers? Beyond state reactions, how do you think the public in these non-child soldier countries should react?


Extension Activities

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

1. Divide students into small groups and distribute several copies of the CRC to each group. A copy of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be found at

2. Assign each group a set of articles from the CRC to read over as group and to paraphrase in their own words. Note: Although there are 54 articles in the CRC, students need only to study articles 1-41.  These articles address specific rights of the child.

3. Distribute flip chart paper or poster board to each group. Ask the students to write down or draw their understanding of the articles. Students should then present their findings to the rest of the class.  

4. Once each of the groups has presented, lead the class in a deeper discussion of the CRC. Some discussion questions are: Do you think any of the children's rights mentioned in the CRC are more important than others? Why or why not? Were there any children's rights included that you were surprised by? Why or why not? Who is responsible for protecting the rights of the child? Are there any rights not included in the CRC that you think should be? When children are recruited as child soldiers what human rights are being violated? What rights do child soldiers have? 


A Story in Photographs

(Note: Ideally students will carry out the Convention on the Rights of the Child activity before participating in this activity.)

1. Divide students into small groups. Distribute photos of street children found in the Annex to this chapter to each small group.

2. Have students write a story based on the photos.

3. Using the chapter Child Soldiers, and the CRC as a resource, have students identify what conventions or treaties would protect the children in the photos and the stories they tell.

4. As a class, discuss what conventions and treaties protect the children in the photos. Some questions to consider are: Which children's human rights are being violated when children are recruited as child soldiers? What rights do child soldiers have?


Media Coverage

(Note: It might be helpful to create a map that highlights different conflict areas.)

1. Ask students to collect or document media coverage of children in combat, particularly child soldiers. They should explore sources such as newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet.

2. Students should then analyze these sources by answering the following questions:

  • Does the media coverage appear to be factual and objective?
  • What kind of descriptive language and tone are used in each type of media? How might this affect the ways in which the issue of child soldiers is perceived by the reader? How are different conflicts portrayed?
  • How much of the media coverage actually addresses solutions to the problem of child soldiers? What kinds of efforts are being made to solve this problem?  

3. Using the research complied, ask students to write their own "Letter to the Editor" related to their analysis of the media coverage and their sense of how the media can facilitate solutions to the problem of child soldiers.


Take Action

Amnesty International-USA has an online action center on its website that enables visitors to send an email or a letter to their (federal) Senator asking him/her to help pass the Child Soldier Prevention Act. Pass this URL on to three other students:




Innocent Voices, directed by Luis Mandoki (Lawrence Bender, 2005).  Based on the true story of screenwriter Oscar Torres's embattled childhood, the film is the poignant tale of Chava, an eleven-year-old boy who suddenly becomes the "man of the house" after his father abandons the family in the middle of the El Salvadorian civil war.

Lost Boys of Sudan, directed by Megan Mylan and Jon Sherle (Public Broadcasting System, 2005). The film follows two Sudanese refugees, orphaned as young boys, surviving lion attacks and militia gunfire to reach a refugee camp in Kenya, and remarkably chosen to come to America. Safe at last from physical danger and hunger, they find themselves confronted with the abundance and alienation of contemporary American suburbia.

God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tom Walker (New Market Films, 2006). This is a documentary film about three of the "Lost Boys of Sudan", a group of some 25,000 young men who have fled the wars in Sudan since the 1980s, and their experiences as they move to the United States.



Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict

Office of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict

World Map of Child Soldiers, 2000/2001

Report of Graša Machel, "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" (UNICEF) is the website for The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which works to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, to secure their demobilization and to ensure their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Red Hand Day, 12 February is an initiative of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers for raising global awareness of the plight of child soldiers through public protests, demonstrations and other activities.

Amnesty International's page on child soldiers



Briggs, Jimmie. Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. New York: Sarah Crichton Books of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.




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