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Children in Armed Conflict

The Problem

Children Affected by Armed Conflict image

Students returning from school in Northern Uganda

Although the number of children affected by armed conflict is unknown, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers recognizes that wherever armed conflict exists, children are involved. Most are between the ages of 14 and 18, though some are as young as 7.

Children may be abducted from their homes, streets or schools to be used as soldiers. Others are driven into armed conflict by poverty or alienation from their families and communities. Orphans, refugees and other displaced children are particularly at risk. So are children recently demobilized from conflict who face the possibility of re-recruitment. Those who do not directly participate in fighting may be forced to serve in support functions as porters, spies, miners, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Armed conflict places children at grave risk. Many die or are seriously injured; others are severely traumatized and later struggle to readapt to ordinary life. Children affected by armed conflict frequently miss out on years of education and other opportunities to develop social and economic skills. They may be exposed to HIV/AIDS and, in the case of girls, pregnancy and early motherhood.

The DOL Response

Since 1995, the Department of Labor (DOL) has funded eight projects worth $42 million to protect children affected by armed conflict. These include 2 global projects and initiatives in Afghanistan, Nepal, Colombia, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Although prevention is clearly the best answer, in those instances when a child has already been placed in harm's way, we have learned that a combination of strategies is needed. DOL-supported programs couple efforts to reintegrate children into their communities with interventions aimed at providing them with basic education, vocational training opportunities and psycho-social services when needed. 

Children often explain their enrollment in armed groups as a strategy to meet basic human needs. Parents and guardians need more income to keep their children in school. Children themselves may also have responsibilities as caregivers and providers. To address this, DOL programs are designed to meet the specific economic needs of beneficiaries. Many programs provide children above the age of 15, the minimum age for work in some contexts, with apprenticeships and catch-up classes. Many also help their parents access business development training and microfinance opportunities.

To ensure that girls and young women benefit from prevention and reintegration activities as much as boys and young men do, DOL frequently offers gender-specific services and disaggregates by gender when collecting data. In addition, DOL links its programs to national efforts at peace-building, development and labor reform. This linkage facilitates long-term support from the host-country, encourages donors to provide additional funding and assists the development of a sound exit strategy.

Finally, DOL engages in interagency coordination on the child soldier issue on an informal basis. In May 2003, DOL also hosted “Children in the Crossfire,” a conference to raise awareness about the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.

Recent Developments

DOL’s research indicates that, in 2011, a number of country governments continued to use and in some cases actively recruit child soldiers, including in Afghanistan, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Colombia. In other countries, terrorist organizations, militias and armed groups continued to use and recruit children, including in the Central African Republic, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Philippines and West Bank and Gaza.

There have been instances of improvement. In 2011, the Government of Chad stopped recruiting children in its national army and signed the joint Government of Chad-UN Action Plan on Children Associated with Armed Forces and Groups in Chad to prevent children from being recruited in the future. And in 2012, the Governments of Cote d’Ivoire, Swaziland, Indonesia, Niger, Nigeria and Malaysia ratified the Optional Protocols on Children in Armed Conflict and the Sale of Children.

In March 2012, the International Criminal Court convicted Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for the military use of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the Court’s first conviction, it underscores the importance of this issue internationally and sends a clear message to perpetrators that the use of children in armed conflict will not be tolerated.

U.S. and International Law

The United States does not permit compulsory recruitment of children for military service. However, the U.S. does allow children at age 17 to volunteer for service in its Armed Forces. This practice is subject to a number of safeguards, including parental consent and proof of age prior to enlistment.

U.S. law also provides protection to children from armed conflict and discourages other governments and armed groups from using child soldiers through the Child Soldiers Accountability and Prevention Acts.

International legal instruments include:

  • Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OP): A prohibition on compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 into governmental armed forces requiring State Parties to take “all feasible measures” to ensure that members of their armed forces that are under the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities. It also requires Parties to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment and use in hostilities of persons under age 18 by non-state armed groups. The U.S. is a party to this protocol.
  • International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182: The forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is defined as one of the “worst forms of child labor” under this convention. The U.S. ratified this convention in 1999 and committed itself to aiding other countries in their efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor through technical assistance.
  • The Kimberley Process: An international effort to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the legitimate market by imposing certification requirements on deliveries of rough diamonds. The U.S. participates in this process as part of its efforts to stop the financing of human rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of children.
  • The Paris Commitments and Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups: A pledge from the international community to work together to stop the recruitment of children and to support their release and reintegration. As of 2011, 100 countries have endorsed the Paris Commitments and Principles.