Better Understanding Child Soldiering so as to Prevent It

African Soldier

Mark A. Drumbl and Jastine C. Barrett on the children associated with fighting forces around the world.

In April 2015, rebel soldiers kidnapped Patricia, aged 13, and her 11-year-old sister from their home in South Sudan. This newly independent country has been plagued with relentless internecine violence since it separated from Sudan in 2012. The Guardian reports that Patricia (not her real name) was abused as a sex slave, a porter, and as a cook. She was frequently raped. Yet she survived. After 3 years of brutal captivity, she was released in 2018 when a peace deal was brokered between government and rebel forces.

Patricia now is back home with her baby.

How to begin to think of Patricia’s journey to physical and mental health? How to envision her road to reintegration? And her baby, what of children born of conflict-related violence? How should those responsible for Patricia’s ordeal be held to account? How to prevent such odious practices of abducting and conscripting children in the first place? Finally, does Patricia’s story represent that of most child soldiers? Are all child soldiers abducted like Patricia or could some be considered to have joined voluntarily – and if so, what does that mean?  Do some join to fight for causes they believe in? How to speak of the violence that child soldiers may inflict on others, including other children?

These are many of the tough questions triggered by the persistence of child soldiering. International norms consider persons under the age of eighteen who are associated with armed forces or armed groups to be a protected class. Colloquially speaking, such children – like Patricia — are referred to as ‘child soldiers’. Child soldiers are not only those children who carry guns or fight. They are all children associated with fighting forces, often in forced marriages, bondage situations, spies and sentries, and domestic workers.

Elgar’s newly published Research Handbook on Child Soldiers tries to provide answers to these tough questions. Over two dozen experts from six continents have contributed to this broad interdisciplinary project. Contributors harness a rich diversity of backgrounds. They bring wide-ranging expertise to bear.

The book is edited by Mark A. Drumbl and Jastine C. Barrett. Their goal as editors is to create a space in which to better understand child soldiering so as to more effectively deter the practice, sustainably reintegrate children associated with armed forces or armed groups, as well as promote a vibrant culture of juvenile rights and gender equality. An overarching goal of this Research Handbook is to lay groundwork for more humanistic relations among ages and a richer culture of intergenerational equity.

This book offers a reflective, fresh and nuanced review of the complex issue of child soldiering. It delivers a sensitive and upbeat cadence. It invokes a wide lens that includes children associated with terrorist groups and criminal gangs.

This book emphasizes the global nature of child soldiering. Indeed, child soldiers are found on every continent. In Syria, over 800 children were recruited in the course of 2018, 94 per cent of whom were used in combat roles. Of these, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) reportedly recruited 313 children; 40 per cent were girls and 20 per cent were under the age of 15 years. In March 2019, seven children and 25 former child soldiers were formally discharged in Myanmar, having previously been recruited into the state armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. In the year to the end of March 2019, the British army had enlisted 1,000 16-year-olds and 820 17-year-olds, constituting almost 30 per cent of all those enlisted for the year – the highest proportion recruited in the last decade. More sixteen-year-olds were recruited than any other age. Just a couple of days before this blog was penned, reports hit the headlines of Yemeni children being enlisted through trafficking networks by the Saudi Arabian government to fight on its behalf along its southern border with Yemen. And, in the last couple of months, 18 children of European jihadis were removed from refugee camps in Syria and taken to start new lives in Belgium and France: the exception rather than rule, however, with Western countries remaining extremely reluctant to repatriate ISIS children even where their parents are dead. In the first half of 2019, the number of children recruited by armed groups in Mali had doubled that recruited during the same period last year. Children in some Latin American countries remain involved in drug cartels that resemble armed groups in how they recruit youth and the violence they deploy.

The book is distinctive because it focuses on the capacities of child soldiers to cope with adversity. In so doing, this book emphasizes the resilience, humanity and potential of children affected – rather than ‘afflicted’ – by armed conflict.

The Research Handbook on Child Soldiers will be of interest to academics, practitioners and activists alike, with its extensive incorporation of cutting-edge fieldwork and the voices of the children themselves. This book will also appeal to individuals from many walks of life who are concerned with the rights of the child in times of conflict, peace, and the in-between.

For anyone in the Amsterdam area on Wednesday 25 September the VU Amsterdam will host a discussion of the book featuring some contributors.

A detailed interview with both editors is available here.

The Research Handbook on Child Soldiers has already received critical acclaim.


Mark A. Drumbl, Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and Director, Transnational Law Institute, Washington and Lee University, US and Jastine C. Barrett, Independent Human Rights Consultant and Honorary Researcher, Kent Law School, University of Kent, UK

The Research Handbook on Child Soldiers is out now.

Read the Introduction and Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline.

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