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Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse

Child recruitment by armed forces or armed groups

© UNICEF/NYHQ1998-0084/Jeremy Horner
A girl, a former abductee of the LRA, works at a sewing machine, part of a skills training workshop at a UNICEF-assisted centre run by GUSCO, a local NGO in the northern town of Gulu. The centre provides psychosocial counselling, vocational training and other assistance for these children.

Around the world, thousands of boys and girls are recruited into government armed forces and rebel groups to serve as combatants, cooks, porters, messengers or in other roles. Girls are also recruited for sexual purposes or forced marriage. Many have been recruited by force, though some may have joined as a result of economic, social or security pressures. Situations of displacement and poverty make children even more vulnerable to recruitment.

As emphasized in the United Nations report on the impact of armed conflict on children (Machel Study, 1996), children associated with armed forces or armed groups are exposed to tremendous violence – often forced both to witness and commit violence, while themselves being abused, exploited, injured or even killed as a result. Their condition deprives them of their rights, often with severe physical and emotional consequences.

UNICEF works to release children from armed forces and armed groups as soon as possible even during armed conflict, and help them return to their families. In doing so, UNICEF supports services that care for the physical and mental health and well-being of such children, provide them with life skills and engage them in positive activities towards their future, including education, vocational skills and livelihoods training. A community-oriented approach is adopted that includes support to other vulnerable children who have also been severely affected by the conflict so as to promote reconciliation and avoid discrimination. These actions require a long-term perspective and long-term commitment to these children and to the conflict affected communities into which they return. 

More than 100,000 children have been released and reintegrated into their communities since 1998 in over 15 countries affected by armed conflict. In 2010 alone, UNICEF supported the reintegration of some 11,400 children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups along with 28,000 other vulnerable children affected by conflict.

(click on the image for the full size infographic)

Since the mid-1980s, UNICEF and its partners have advocated for, and secured the release of, children from armed forces in conflict-affected countries including Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

UNICEF also promotes the legal and normative framework that underpins prohibitions against the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups, notably through ratification and implementation of the Optional protocol to the Convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and endorsement of the Paris principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups and the Paris commitments to protect children from unlawful recruitment or use by armed forces or armed groups.

Visit the resources page for more information.





A child associated with an armed force or armed group is any person 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, combatants, cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. The term “child soldier” is discouraged as it does not accurately reflect the range of roles in which boys and girls are recruited and used for military purposes, and for whose release UNICEF advocates.

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