The effects of being a child soldier can last a lifetime

It’s almost impossible to know the exact figure but it’s estimated there are tens of thousands of children in armed groups around the world.

The UN defines child soldiers as 'children associated with armed forces and groups', or 'CAAFAG' for short. 


Not all children have armed roles in these groups, so referring them as 'child soldiers' isn't always accurate:  


"A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes." 


Some children are abducted by armed groups, but some are lured in by promises of education, security, money and status, and others are indoctrinated or forced. 

Frederique, a former child soldier, playing football next to War Child's friendly space.

Most people think that children are only exploited by rebel militias—they are often also recruited by state armed forces.  

In reality the risks to children in armed groups is huge, and the after-effects can last a lifetime. 

Even if children are released or escape, they may find their families have been killed in conflict—or sometimes the children are rejected by their own communities, especially girls who have had babies with soldiers. 

Given the increase of children associated with armed groups and forces in the latest warfare trends, War Child UK has decided to deepen the knowledge around root causes and programming that could prevent the recruitment and support reintegration of children back into communities. 


What we're doing

We help reunite children with their families. 

We are committed to helping release children from armed groups and supporting them to go back to their families, schools and communities. 

Children need safety and appropriate care while their families are being traced or a long-term solution found. Otherwise there’s a serious risk of abduction or re-recruitment. 

In the Central African Republic we’re supporting children who have been released from armed groups by finding interim foster carers while their families are being traced. 

A drawing by an ex-child soldier.

Reintegrating children back into society is so important

The children are encouraged to participate in psychosocial support, such as group activities with other boys or girls who have been in armed groups. They can share experiences and develop life-skills, such as conflict resolution, positive decision-making and planning for a positive future. Children who need more in-depth psychological support are referred to specialist services. Education and training is key so that children have a chance at a future. School-age children are helped to return to formal education, while older children are given vocational or work-skills training. We work closely with community-based child protection groups who often see the challenges on the ground first-hand. Spaces to play, communicate, and to make friends allow children to build bonds with others and recover. This collaboration can help reduce stigma and rejection of the children by their community.

Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) is the main framework aimed at helping child soldiers safely leave armed groups. 

The reintegration process, which War Child UK focuses on, helps children get access to social and economic opportunities to provide them with more prospects for their future. 

But the DDR process is not perfect. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. 

Children have different experiences: their friends and family may be a part of the group, or they may have no stable family environment to reconnect with. 

Support from parents and the feeling of facing challenges together, as a family, can be effective in preventing children from joining an armed group. 

What made one child more susceptible to joining an armed group ... was often the absence of a stable family environment and ... parental figures
War Child UK report, "Tug-of-War", 2018.

But some children may not have any family. 

The little support present at a community level is vital in providing guidance, activities, and opportunities to prevent further recruitment. 

Without a programme that can consider all of these aspects the effects of the horrifying things these children have experienced can last a lifetime.