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Human Trafficking Center

Child Soldiers and the Misnomer of “Joining” Armed Groups


Dec 2014



by Victoria Robertson, HTC associate

The use and recruitment of child soldiers is rising. According to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the number of countries where child soldiers are present is up 30 percent from 2012. It’s estimated that there are over 300,000 children under the age of 18 fighting in conflicts globally. To understand this increasing prevalence, it’s vital to understand the various methods and motivations used to involved children in armed combat.

Traditional Reasons for “Joining”

Children, like other victims of human trafficking, can be driven to join armed groups out of a need to survive. Often without parents, taking up arms can provide children with a new family structure, as well as food, care, and physical protection. Additionally, children can be vulnerable to attempts by recruiters to force, fraud, or coerce them to “join” – often through threats of harm, physical abuse, and intimidation.

External Pressures

Given the pressures associated with the desire to live up to community or parent expectations, labeling the recruitment of these children “voluntary” is a misnomer. Encouragement to join an armed force can come from all directions – communities, religious or educational institutions, peer groups, and even a child’s own family. These pressures are compounded when adult or parent figures receive monetary rewards for children’s enlistment, as was the case in Sri Lanka. In some cases, parents received increased respect or position within the community in turn for their child’s service or martyrdom.*

Internal Motivations

According to Ilene Cohn and Guy Goodwill-Gill, children who chose to enter into armed combat have often “personally experienced or witnessed extremes of physical violence.” These children, they argue, are motivated to join by desires for revenge or by a need to join existing social structures. Stripped of a family structure and without capacity to understand or appropriately deal with the gripping emotions of guilt and loss, enlistment in armed forces not only appeals to the child’s sensitive state but satisfies their immediate need for community support and revenge.

Sense of Adventure/Future Rewards

Some children admit to joining armed groups of their own volition in search of adventure, identity or for the promise of future rewards. In January 1990, for example, recruiters of Liberia’s Armed Forces “were reportedly overwhelmed with volunteer street children who, according to one witness, ‘wanted to get up to Nimba County and do something for their country,’ as they felt it would be more interesting that street life.” Similar stories are told of children enlisting when told they will be able to ride on motorcycles, carry weapons or keep goods that they stole in combat.


Although some children will claim that their reasons for joining armed forces are rooted in political ideology, religious conviction, or support of their country, the indoctrination of youth prior to enlistment “negates any presumption of “voluntary participation for the cause.” Given their limited understanding and life experiences, children often lack the cognitive ability to question or understand the concepts that they claim as reasons for enlisting. Such vulnerabilities are clearly preyed upon, for example, by Syrian Jihadists in efforts to recruit French youth.

Children in countries facing pervasive insecurity are exceedingly susceptible to recruitment in armed conflict. By understanding the ways and reasons that children become forcibly involved in armed conflict, international organizations will be better able to address children’s vulnerabilities.


(Photo: Children in the Omo River Valley in Ethiopia. Via Wikimedia Commons)



*Cohn, Ilene and Guy Goodwill-Gill. Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflicts. Clarendon Press. Oxford: UK. 1994. Page 39. This book can be purchased at


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