Children playing a game in DRC.

Why do children become child soldiers?

War Child UK's report, 'Tug of War: Children in Armed Groups in DRC', shows that in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) most children are joining 'voluntarily'.

What made one child more susceptible to joining an armed group ... was often the absence of a stable family environment and ... parental figures. 

When children who've joined armed groups, or 'child soldiers', are discussed, it's assumed they're recruited by force. While that does happen, the action of joining voluntarily is overlooked. 

There are many questions that aren't asked. How does it happen? Why does it happen? Are there children more prone to making this choice? Is it accurate to call it a choice? 

Our research was central to understanding this. 

150 children and 80 adults in North and South Kivu were interviewed to understand the 'push' and 'pull' factors that influence children to voluntarily join armed groups as combatants or in other roles, such as porters, spies, cooks, or for sexual purposes. 

Credit Zute Lightfoot

What are 'push' and 'pull' factors? 

Push factors are circumstances in a child's community that drives them to join an armed group. 

These could include household poverty, unemployment, hunger, tribalism, the need to seek refuge, mistreatment at home by the police or other armed groups, or the desire to seek vengeance. 

Pull factors are rewards or incentives that children know they'll receive by joining an armed group. 

Knowing you'll get food, access to money, protection from harm, improved societal status, better choices in day-to-day living, and the ability to defend and protect family and loved ones are all potential drivers. 

Children in Masisi.
Imagine, with the problem of tribalism, a hutu kills my mother while she’s in the field with machetes. Me, as a hunde, i want to avenge my mother’s death at all costs, hence why this war never ends
Girl, aged 17, from Kitchanga, Masisi.

Joining an armed group 

What do we mean by joining an armed group 'voluntarily'? 

Affected communities understand it as when a child joins an armed group of their own free will, without force or coercion.  

Even if not coerced, a child's decision to join is much less about a desire to do so, and more about a choice between very limited options. 

These limited options are incredibly complex as social, political, economic, and cultural elements mix and interact to create the various push and pull factors. Placing responsibility on children and, to an extent, their parents, can just reinforce their vulnerability. 

The journey from childhood and adulthood has a key role to play.  

Voluntarily joining an armed group can be seen by children as a way to achieve 'adult status'. Although this isn't an original intention, many children note this as an aspect after reflecting on their time in an armed group. 


Gendered Roles

Boys are typically the focus of commentators or the media when discussing child soldiers. 

Within affected communities this focus remains, mainly because girls are seen to join groups in different ways than boys. 

Children who are considered members of an armed group are seen as 'combatants', those that carry weapons, which applies largely to boys.  

But this doesn't mean that girls aren't part of an armed group, or that their roles are any less important. Girls take on different roles. 

Life in an armed group is undeniably tough for boys. 

Boys suffer physical hardship: they're denied sleep or must sleep in the open air, and lack food, shelter and medicine. 

The level of violence towards boys is high, as is the violence they commit towards others, including killings and severe beatings. 

The girls don’t join. Maybe those who are wives of soldiers and who live in the community, they can go whenever they want
Boy, aged 13, from Lumbishi, Kalehe.

Younger boys (around age 13) and older boys (around age 15) have clear roles, which is also based on physical strength and size. 

The younger are usually bodyguards, spies, transport ammunitions, or help prepare food and care for smaller children (born into the group). 

Older boys become soldiers. They're trained to use weapons, and are sent out to steal, loot and kill. 

Girls' roles are very different. They are rarely combatants and have greater mobility: they remain living in their communities and can come and go easily, which helps define their roles in armed groups. 

They can have roles as 'wives', casual sex partners, taking care of domestic chores like cooking, cleaning, and also caring for smaller children as the younger boys do. 

As these roles require them to spend a lot of time in communities, it allows them to be used as spies and scouts, too. 

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

A boy in CAR


Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) is the main framework aimed at helping child soldiers safely leave armed groups, and making sure they can reconnect with their families and communities. The reintegration process helps children get access to social and economic opportunities to provide them with more prospects for their future.

"When [the armed group] send us to fetch water … we take advantage and escape. They would never give you permission to leave"Boy, aged 11, in a DDR centre, Goma. 

But the DDR process is not perfect. There is no one-size-fits-all answer based on the different contexts War Child UK works in. 

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. 

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.