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Youth at war: dealing with a generation of young soldiers

Child soldiers are common in Yemen, with the Houthis among several groups to use them Mohammed Al-Ariqi/IRIN
Child soldiers are common in Yemen, with the Houthis among several groups to use them

The increasing involvement of children and young people in many of the world's conflict-affected regions is an important area of concern for global security and the welfare of the younger generations. 

The issue of child combatants has received much press in the last decades, but now there is a growing awareness of what drives young people to join the armed forces. 

According to the 2007 World Development Report published by the World Bank, there are 1.5 billion people worldwide aged between 12- and 24-years - 1.3 billion of whom live in developing countries. This means most young people are coming of age in societies that lack basic education and employment opportunities. 

In many parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the problem of children growing up amid conflict has seen an upsurge since the end of the Cold War. This environment makes it harder for young people to make the normal transition into adulthood. 

Conflict environments prevent children from gaining a good education and learning useful skills. This in turn makes them feel excluded from mainstream society and they (mostly young men) turn to the armed militias. 

It is generally believed that as long as young people see themselves as outcasts, they are more likely to seek immediate solutions to their survival, including warfare. 

These trends were observed in the UN Secretary-General's 2001 Report on the Prevention of Armed Conflict, which stated that: "Young people with limited education and few employment opportunities often provide fertile recruiting ground for parties to a conflict. Their lack of hope for the future can fuel disaffection with society and make them susceptible to the blandishments of those who advocate armed conflict." 

These thoughts were echoed by anthropologist Paul Richards who explained massive youth militarisation in West Africa as being symptomatic of a general "crisis of youth" amid state corruption, resentment and unfulfilled expectations in the post-independence context. 

Today, while many young people consider globalisation as an opportunity, many others (especially in developing countries) feel they are missing out, and are unable to migrate to take advantage of better opportunities. 

Defining youth

Children and youth have always played a role in warfare, from ancient times to modern day conflicts. However, there has been a growing abhorrence to child fighting in the international community, due mainly to the growth in human rights protection. 

Defining 'youth' is not easy. The UN considers anyone under the age of 18 to be a child, and those aged 15 to 24 to be 'youths'. However, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) considers those aged 10- to 24-years-old to be 'young people'. So, loosely speaking, individuals aged 10 to 18 can be defined as children. 

The matter becomes more complicated however when cultural definitions are taken into account. Western definitions of childhood vary, for example, to those in traditional African societies, where adulthood begins when a child is able to work or fight. 

Some analysts thus consider age-based definitions arbitrary, further clouding the issue. 

Statistical imprecision

Although it is well known that young people take part in armed conflict in the world's politically unstable regions, there are no precise figures on the number of 15- to 24-year-olds involved in fighting. 

According to Amnesty International, "an estimated 300,000 children and youths under 18 are currently participating in armed conflict in more than 30 different countries on nearly every continent". 

Some children are as young as seven-years, but most are in their teens. 

A recent report by the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children (an affiliate of the International Rescue Committee, [IRC]) said that over 300 million young people under the age of 25 are living in countries affected by armed conflict. 

It is therefore widely felt by the UN and many international NGOs that young people involved in conflict should be treated as a separate group. 

A demographic threat?

One of the reasons for the increase in the number of young people taking part in armed conflict can be attributed to population bulges. 

According to the 2007 World Development Report, the number of young people will dramatically increase in the next 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Middle East (Gaza, Iraq, and Yemen). 

Political scientist, Samuel Huntington, argues in his book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order", that 'youth bulges' in Muslim societies have contributed to the radicalisation of the Muslim world: "The key factor is the demographic factor … Generally speaking, the people who go out and kill other people are males between the ages of 16 and 30. During the 1960s, '70s and '80s there were high birth rates in the Muslim world, and this has given rise to a huge youth bulge." 

This argument has been used in US foreign politics to explain current political instability and the growth of terrorism networks in the Arab world. 

According to German economist and sociologist, Gunnar Heinsohn, a youth bulge occurs when a country hosts between 30 to 40 percent of young males from ages 15 to 29 - the "fighting age" - and experiences periods where women have between four and eight children each. 

The link between demographics and violence remains controversial, however, it has been seen that there is a correlation between a large youthful population and conflict. 

At the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2002, 63 percent of the general population was under 25-years-old. 

Young people in armed forces

Scores of children and youths have been recruited in the last decade by both government armies and rebel forces in countries such as Afghanistan, Columbia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Guatemala, Lebanon, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Uganda. 

Meanwhile, in Western countries such as the United Kingdom, young people can join the army from 17-years-old, so long as they do so of their own volition and with their parents' consent. 

In October 2006, the UN Secretary-General's Report on Children and Armed Conflict warned of the potential danger areas for children, including the Middle-East (Lebanon, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Iraq), Afghanistan, and the Great Lakes Region of Africa. 

Why do they choose to fight?

While there is widespread condemnation of children fighting in conflict zones, a recent study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that two-thirds of child soldiers served under their own initiative in armed forces. 

One reason for this is because older youths are more reactive to political ideologies, and are more likely to join armed groups. 

One former young combatant and current Ugandan activist, Okwir Rabwni, said: "I joined as a volunteer. I had been exposed to politics and I was ready to join the struggle when I was 15. This is common in Africa … Young people are politically idealistic and ambitious, and attracted to quick solutions to their problems." 

Unrest in the Horn of Africa state of Somalia has seen youths fighting on both sides of the conflict: the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Libya, Eritrea and Egypt have been used as training grounds for these young soldiers, who have been implicated in a number of assassinations and attacks against foreigners in Somalia, according to the International Crisis Group.

The breakdown of normal social structures prevents young people from making the natural transition to adulthood with its accompanying identities. In times of conflict and poverty, young people are attracted to the military as it offers them an identity they are otherwise deprived of. Caught between childhood and adulthood, youths can be drawn into armed groups as it gives them a fast-track to adulthood. 

Adolescence and youth are a critical stage in a person's development. It is a time of rapid transformation which can see young people taking risks as they try on their new roles and responsibilities. This period is intensified during times of conflict when the social norms and means of support are removed, stopping young people from making a normal evolution to becoming an adult. 

In Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight, humanitarian analysts Rachel Brett and Irma Specht tried to uncover the main reasons for voluntary recruitment. They questioned former child soldiers who had been aged between 15 and 18 at the time of their enlistment in Afghanistan, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the British armed forces. It was found that most children came from the poorest sector of society, conflict zones and broken homes. 

Germain, 19, from DRC told IRIN: "I was the eldest, my father was dead and the family was poor, I had nothing to do in the village, so I decided with some friends to join the militias in the bush. They seemed powerful in their uniforms." 

Poverty and the search for status are recurring reasons given by young people for enlisting. This is displayed in Richards' account of the violent conflict in Sierra Leone, where poor and alienated youths practiced terror to gain power in the absence of other opportunities in their society. 

An Israeli manufactured light machine gun in use with the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)
Guy Oliver/IRIN
An Israeli manufactured light machine gun in use with the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), the armed wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) (March 2013)

How voluntary is voluntary?

While organisations such as the ILO have discovered that children join armed groups of their own volition, there is some debate as to how much choice they really have. 

Many young people are driven into conflict by pressures beyond their control, and usually economic. They can also be attracted to join the army as it can be a safer place to be rather than the conflict area itself. 

The 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict saw many young people enlisting in the armed wing of Shia-backed Hezbollah. 

"Under attack and insecure, young people in these areas grew up feeling protected by, and proud of, Hezbollah," Amal Saad Ghorayeb, lecturer at the Lebanese American University, told IRIN. 

Recruited in eastern Congo by the predominantly Hema militia group, Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), Charles, 17, told IRIN: "It is better for me to stay with the militias than in my home village, because it was attacked several times." 

In Southern Sudan, violence has continued between the White Army and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) which both recruit underage combatants. The White Army, made up largely of males between 15 and 20 years, have refused to disarm despite a 2005 disarmament programme. They say they need to remain armed in order to prevent cattle raiding. 

One political analyst, who requested anonymity, explained to IRIN: "With livestock as the medium of exchange and prestige, young men in these communities are under pressure to acquire a critical amount of cattle to marry, which often leads to cattle raiding and a spiral of violence." 

Scholars such as Jesse Newman, Researcher at the Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University, argue that adolescents and young people should be treated as a specific vulnerable group in times of conflict as they are "more prone to hazard than children in situations of armed conflict". 
"Compared to young children, adolescent boys are particularly attractive to military leaders who recognise their physical strength and ability as assets to military endeavours," said Newman. 

In addition, the fact that they are less likely to be attending school makes them more readily available for recruiting. 

Older youths are responsible for supporting their families following the death of parents. If they cannot find gainful employment, they become susceptible to recruitment and abduction by armed groups. 

Many children and young people are still conscripted by force in conflicts all over the world, most notably in Columbia, the Darfur region of Sudan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and northern Uganda. 

One way of recruiting a child soldier is to have him take part in the massacre of family of village members. This breaks the child's links to the family or settlement and makes him scared to return home. 


Although there is a far higher exposure of adolescent females to sexual violence than adolescent males, the gender perspective is often overlooked in research when considering the consequences of armed conflict on youth. 

Some of the most striking examples of war rapes in the last decade occurred in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, DRC and Sudan, affecting thousands of women, but in particular girls and young women between 15- and 24-years-old. 

A study by the Women's Commission in 2005, described how in Kosovo young girls were "specifically vilified for having been raped by their captors or for taking on traditional male roles. Among other things, this resulted in lost opportunities for marriage and the chance of a normal life". 

The international protection system

There has been substantial progress in the protection of children and youth with regard to armed conflict. However, the international community has not yet reached a consensus concerning the establishment of a unified policy to address youth in conflict. 

In international humanitarian law, the most important instruments of protection for children in armed conflict are the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and two additional Protocols added in 1977. Additional Protocol II provides that "children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups nor allowed to take part in hostilities". 

International human rights standards are based on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, adopted in 1989) - the most widely ratified human rights treaty - which is reinforced by the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (adopted in 2000). The latter stipulates that individuals under the age of 18 should not be forcibly recruited into national armed forces, although voluntary enlistment is permitted to young people over 16. However, it strictly prohibits the recruitment of persons under 18 by non-state armed groups. 

The use of child soldiers under the age of 15 has been recognised as a war crime and falls within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

In 2006, Thomas Lubanga, who led the UPC militia in eastern DRC, became the first person to be charged at the ICC; his crime: having recruited children under the age of 15 in hostilities. 

Despite moves to concrete protection rights for children, there remain those who would like to raise the age of voluntary enlistment to 18-years; this is known as the 'straight 18' position. 
Western countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have come under pressure to raise the age of enlistment. The UK will enlist a child of 16, the US, 17. However, both countries claim they do not send this age group into war zones. 

UNICEF's former executive director, Carol Bellamy, said in 2000: "It is disappointing that the Optional Protocol fails to apply to government military forces the same standards required of non-governmental armed groups." 

Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of youth 
There are added problems when it comes to the task of dealing with youth taking part in Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programmes. 

These programmes aim to rehabilitate ex-combatants after armed militias have been disbanded. The former soldiers, many of them youths, are returned to their communities. However, some fail to adapt, and return to military life or become susceptible to being re-recruited. 

Reasons for this can include joblessness (ex-combatants swell the ranks of the already unemployed), or a lack of reintegration facilities. 

Brett and Specht argue that: "Although all these young people joined as adolescents, by the time of demobilisation and reintegration, many "child soldiers" will in fact be adults. This does not alter the basis and nature of their adolescent armed experience, but may disguise it. They may look like adults and even behave like adults, at least superficially. However, their needs may be more akin to children since they too missed out on education, were separated from families, and so on. Programmes addressed solely to those still under 18 at the time of demobilisation will, therefore, overlook many young people who were recruited and fought as child soldiers. This is one of the places at which the broader definition of "youth" as up to the age of 25 may well be a more appropriate category." 

Youth in the international agenda

Awareness about children in armed conflict has grown recently due to recent humanitarian crises. 

The World Programme of Action for Youth, adopted in 1995, originally comprised ten main areas of action, including employment and juvenile delinquency. Since 2001, the Programme has added five more priority areas, including 'young people in armed conflict, both as victims and as perpetrators'. 

Key to discouraging children from joining armed militias is getting older youths to influence younger children against enlisting. This is especially true in war-torn societies where traditional family structures no longer exist. Winning young people away from armed militancy can prove to be a decisive step towards the eradication of voluntary child soldiering. 

Patrick, 19, has fought for the last tree years in east DRC. He was a minor when he enlisted in the main rebel faction led by Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu. 

"My father was dead and my mother wouldn't let me go. She was afraid of the armed men but my older brother and his friends were in the bush, I wanted to be like them, so one evening I left in secret," he told IRIN. 

Lost generation?

Some analysts have branded the generation of youth growing up in developing countries as the 'lost generation'. Without work and education, their futures look particularly bleak. 

These factors deny young people their self-confidence and hope for the future. According to former combatant and Ugandan activist, Rabwni, carrying a gun provides "a sense of self-esteem … for a man who has carried a gun since childhood, it has become an essential part of who he is". 

Young people traditionally provide a groundswell for change; whether this is for a beneficial change or for the destruction of a society, the effects are equally felt. 

Research has shown that there is an urgent need to better understand the issues that concern young people and how best to help them adapt to adulthood in war-torn or impoverished societies. 

These are concerns that have to be addressed, as well as those of the economic and social factors that force young people into joining armed militias. Addressing these needs might be a crucial factor, not in avoiding re-recruitment, but in preventing armed conflict. 

As Brett states, "Very few youngsters go looking for a war to fight […] war comes to them - to their town, village, school, family - and invades their lives." 

As the father of one young Palestinian suicide bomber put it: "This generation has grown up with explosions, shootings, violence, demolitions, so what can you expect?" 

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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