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This is a background article. See Psychological aspects of the military use of children

A Chinese soldier, age 10, member of a Chinese division boarding planes in Myitkyina (Burma) bound for China, May 1944.

The military use of children refers to the act of placing children in harm's way in military actions, in order to protect a location or provide propaganda. This is sometimes referred to as child sacrifice, though not equivalent to the religious variety. It may also refer to the use of children as child soldiers or saboteurs.

Red Hand Day on February 12 is an annual commemoration day to draw public attention to the practice of using children as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts.


File:Greek warrior and young charioteer - Athens pediment.jpg

Illustrative bas-relief of Greek warrior accompanied by his charioteer. From the pediment of a kouros statue, ca. 490 BC.

Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural morals.

Polish Boy Scouts fighting in the Warsaw Uprising.

The earliest mentions of minors being involved in wars come from antiquity. It was customary for youths in the Mediterranean basin to serve as aides, charioteers and armor bearers to adult warriors. Examples of this practice can be found in the Bible (such as David's service to King Saul), in Hittite and Egyptian art, and in Greek mythology (such as the story of Hercules and Hylas), philosophy and literature. In ancient Greece the practice was formalized as part of the pederastic educational tradition, and man/boy couples were considered to make an especially effective fighting force. See Sacred Band of Thebes

A child soldier in the American Civil War

Also in a practice dating back to antiquity, children were routinely taken on campaign, together with the rest of a military man's family, as part of the baggage. This exposed them to harm from rearguard attacks, such as the one at the battle of Agincourt, where the retainers and children of the English army were massacred by the French.

The Romans also made use of youths in war, though it was understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war, and Plutarch implies that regulations required youths to be at least sixteen years of age.

In medieval Europe, young boys from about twelve years of age were used as military aides ("squires"), though in theory their role in actual combat was limited. The so-called Children's Crusade in 1212 recruited thousands of children as untrained soldiers under the assumption that divine power would enable them to conquer the enemy, although none of the children actually entered combat; according to the legend, they were instead sold into slavery. While most scholars no longer believe that the Children's Crusade consisted solely, or even mostly, of children, it nonetheless exemplifies an era in which the entire family took part in a war effort.

Mexico honors its heroic cadets who died in the battle of Chapultepec (1847).

Young boys often took part in battles during early modern warfare. One of their more visible roles was as the ubiquitous "drummer boy" – the film Waterloo (based on the Battle of Waterloo) graphically depicts French drummer boys leading Napoleon's initial attack, only to be gunned down by Allied soldiers. During the age of sail, young boys formed part of the crew of British Royal Navy ships and were responsible for many important tasks including bringing powder and shot from the ship's magazine to the gun crews. These children were called "powder monkeys". During the Siege of Mafeking in the Boer War, Robert Baden-Powell recruited and trained 12-15 year old boys as scouts, thus freeing up the limited number of men for the actual fighting. The boys' success led indirectly to Baden-Powell founding the Boy Scouts, a youth organisation originally run along military lines.

By a law signed by Nicholas I of Russia in 1827, a disproportionate number of Jewish boys, known as the cantonists, were forced into military training establishments to serve in the army. The 25-year conscription term officially commenced at the age of 18, but boys as young as eight were routinely taken to fulfill the hard quota.

World War II

April 20, 1945. On his 56th birthday, Hitler awards Iron Cross to Hitler Youth outside his bunker during the Battle of Berlin.

Young child soldier in service of the Soviet Navy during World War II.

Prisoners of war in the streets of Berlin, 1945

In World War II, children frequently fought in insurrections. Many members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Many other anti-fascist resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe consisted partially of children. Also, the Soviet Union's armed forces used a number of child soldiers during the war.

On the opposite side, Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) was an official organization in Nazi Germany that trained youth physically and indoctrinated them with Nazi ideology. By the end of World War II, members of the Hitler Youth were taken into the army at increasingly younger ages. During the Battle of Berlin in 1945 they were a major part of the German defenses.

In some cases, youth organizations were, and still are, militarized in order to instill discipline in their ranks, sometimes to indoctrinate them with propaganda and prepare for subsequent military service.


12 year old ARVN soldier with M-79 grenade launcher, Tan Son Nhut, 1968 (Vietnam War)

Main article: Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, American soldiers reported (and US military sources documented) a number of incidents where Vietnamese children were given hand grenades and/or explosives and used as weapons against American troops. In one variation, a young girl is instructed to throw a hand grenade (with or without pulling the pin to activate it first, depending on whether direct or psychological casualties are intended.) In another variation, children had explosives strapped to their bodies and were encouraged to mingle with American soldiers, with detonation either by a mechanical device or by remote control. The frequency of such incidents, and whether deadly force was necessary as often as it was actually used, is hotly debated; critics claim the military cited such incidents to justify use of deadly force against children.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Revolutionary United Front

RUF used child soldiers for their militia during the Sierra Leone Civil War from 1993 - 2001. Most were surviviors of village attacks and were trained to kill and use guns and RPGs, while others were just found abandoned. They were used for patrol purposes, attacking a village, or guarding workers in the diamond fields. In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three of the eleven people indicted to be guilty of war crimes during this period, including the conscripting or enlisting of children under the age of 15 years into the armed forces.[1]

Iran-Iraq War

During the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War, both sides were accused of using teenaged children to fill out the ranks of soldiers depleted by years of warfare. During that war, Iran was accused of using children to clear minefields by having them run or bicycle through the fields.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

International law

International human rights law

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 38, (1989) proclaimed: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." The Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the Convention that came into force in 2002 stipulates that its State Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.[2]

On July 26, 2005, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 1612, the sixth in a series of resolutions about children and armed conflict.[3] Resolution 1612 established the first comprehensive monitoring and reporting system for enforcing compliance among those groups using child soldiers in armed conflict.[4]

International humanitarian law

According to Article 77.2 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, adopted in 1977:

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.

As the ICRC commentary on Protocol I makes clear, this is not a complete ban on the use of children in conflict. The ICRC had suggested that the Parties to the conflict should "take all necessary measures", which became in the final text, "take all feasible measures" which is not a total prohibition on their doing so because feasible should be understood as meaning "capable of being done, accomplished or carried out, possible or practicable". Refraining from recruiting children under fifteen does not exclude child who volunteer for armed service. During the negotiations over the clause "take a part in hostilities" the word "direct" was added to it, this opens up the possibility that child volunteers could be involved indirectly in hostilities, gathering and transmitting military information, helping in the transportation of arms and munitions, provision of supplies etc.[5]

Article 4.3.c of Protocol II, additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, adopted in 1977, states "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 labour law

Forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, is one of the predefined worst forms of child labour in terms of the International Labour Organisation's Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, adopted in 1999.

In terms of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation ratifying countries should ensure that forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is a criminal offence, and also provide for other criminal, civil or administrative remedies to ensure the effective enforcement of such national legislation (Article III(12) to (14)).

Child soldiers in the world today

"Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast", Gilbert G. Groud, 2007, mixed materials: tusche and wax crayon

According to Human Rights Watch in a press release dated June 15, 1999:

An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts in more than thirty countries on nearly every continent. While most child soldiers are in their teens, some are as young as seven years old.[6]

Under the terms of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, Children over the age of fifteen who have volunteered can be used as spotters, observers, message-carriers. (see above International humanitarian law)

In cases where children have taken part in combat, recruiting parties have taken active measures to counter their reluctance, such as forcing child recruits to commit brutalities and to take drugs like marijuana, amphetamines and "brown-brown" that inhibit guilt and fear. Propaganda, revenge and fear of being left alone influence children to "voluntarily" stay in the army. Children have been both participants in and victims of atrocities. The recruitment of children as soldiers is a practice that has survived into modern times.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


As of 2007, Africa has the largest number of child soldiers with up to 200,000 believed to be involved in hostilities. Child soldiers are being used in armed conflict in Burundi, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. The Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army is particularly notorious for its use of child soldiers.The Uganda People's Defense Force also allows children from the age of 13 to join, but only with parental consent.[How to reference and link to summary or text]In Chad, there is no minimum age restriction for volunteers with parental consent.


In 2004 the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that in Asia thousands of children are involved in fighting forces in active conflict and ceasefire situations in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka, although government refusal of access to conflict zones has made it impossible to document the numbers involved.[7] In 2004 Burma was unique in the region, as the only country where government armed forces forcibly recruit and use children between the ages of 12 and 18.[7]

In 2004 the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reported that in Chechnya, under-18s are believed to be involved in a range of armed groups in the war against Russia, although the numbers are impossible to establish given a virtual ban on media and human rights organizations from operating in the region. Some children allegedly took part in suicide bombings.[8]

Sri Lanka

Main article: Military use of children in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, thousands of children are believed to be in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),[9] a rebel group banned as a terrorist organization by a number of countries including the United States, Canada, India and the European Union.

Since signing a ceasefire agreement in 2001, the latest available UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has abducted 5,666 children until July 2006, although the organization speculates that only about a third of such cases are reported to them. Sri Lankan soldiers nicknamed one unit the Baby Battalion, due to the number of children in it.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In response to widespread international condemnation of alleged children recruitment practices, the LTTE informed that they have made (taking effect in Oct. 2006) child recruitment illegal for its groups. [9]

More recently, the para-military group known as the Karuna Group, which is apparently splinter group from the LTTE, has been held responsible for the abduction of children according to UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.[10]


Bosnia and Herzegovina

Both sexes can voluntarily join the armed forces from the age of 17. In times of war however, the compulsory military service age can be dropped from 18 to 16 for both sexes.

United Kingdom

The minimum age to join the British Army is 16 and a half; parental permission is required for those under the age of 18. Soldiers are not allowed to take part in Operations until the age of 18. Approximately forty percent of Britain's military forces joined before they were of years of age. This military service is voluntary, leading some to suggest that the argument turns on whether a teenager has the free will and clear mind to consent to join the army. Children's rights advocates claim that children should not be exposed to the risks of military life even if they appear to be willing to do so.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Middle East

Disputed Territories in Israel

Child soldiers have also been used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers "2004 Global Report on the Use of Child Soldiers", there were at least nine documented suicide attacks involving Palestinian minors between October 2000 and March 2004:[11] "There was no evidence of systematic recruitment of children by Palestinian armed groups. However, children are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All the main political groups involve children in this way, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine."[12] According to Israeli security forces, there have been 229 cases of minors involved in militant activity.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Arab journalist Huda Al-Hussein wrote in the London newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "While UN organizations save child-soldiers, especially in Africa, from the control of militia leaders who hurl them into the furnace of gang-fighting, some Palestinian leaders… consciously issue orders with the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath." (Oct. 27, 2000, translated by MEMRI, Arab Journalist Decries Palestinian Child-Soldiers Special Dispatch 146, Nov. 1, 2000). In an interview with the Kuwaiti newspaper Azzaman (June 20, 2002), Mahmoud Abbas condemned the practice, saying that he opposed "that little children go to die", stating that "[i]t is a horrible thing. At least 40 children in Rafah became cripples after their hands were blown off by pipe bombs. They received 5 shekels [slightly over $1] to throw them" (Quoted in the Jordanian newspaper Alrai)[13][How to reference and link to summary or text]

On 23 May, 2005, Amnesty International reiterated its calls to Palestinian armed groups to put an immediate end to the use of children in armed activities: "Palestinian armed groups must not use children under any circumstances to carry out armed attacks or to transport weapons or other material." [14]

North America

United States

In the United States seventeen-year-olds may join the armed forces, but may not be deployed in combat situations. The United States military is based on voluntary recruitment, though minors also must have parental permission to enlist (or permission of one's legal guardian in the absence of parents). Males under eighteen years of age are not draft eligible, and females are not eligible for conscription at any age. The United States military requires all soldiers to possess a high school diploma or equivalent; this requirement may be waived for young soldiers for up to 180 days from the date of enlistment. In spirit, these policies ensure soldier maturity similarly to laws that would explicitly ban the use of minors in combat. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch reported:

"The United States has emerged as the most vigorous opponent of establishing eighteen as the minimum age for military service, although less than 3,000 members of its 1.3 million active duty force are minors."[15]

Latin America

In Latin America, more than 11,000 children are estimated to be involved with left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia. According to Human Rights Watch, "Approximately 80 percent of child combatants in Colombia belong to one of the two left-wing guerrilla groups, the FARC or ELN. The remainder fights in paramilitary ranks." [16]

Bolivia is known to recruit children as young as 14 in times when few volunteers join the armed forces. About 40% of the Bolivian army is under the age of 18, with half of those under the age of 16.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Commonwealth countries

The voluntary minimum age of 16 is also standard for former British colonies like Australia, Canada and Singapore. Minimum voluntary age is 17 in New Zealand, but troops cannot be deployed overseas until age 18.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Movement to stop military use of children

Recently, a strong international movement has emerged to put an end to the practice. See, for example, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

After the war, bringing children or former child soldiers into civil society is difficult, as they have received little education, are accustomed to the use of violence, and often the children have lost ties to their families.


  1. "Guilty Verdicts in the Trial of the AFRC Accused"PDF, press release from the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 20 June 2007; "Sierra Leone Convicts 3 of War Crimes", Associated Press, 20 June 2007 (hosted by The Washington Post); "First S Leone war crimes verdicts", BBC News, 20 June 2007
  2. Adoption by the UN General Assembly of a new treaty prohibiting the use of children under age eighteen in combat Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, New York, May 25, 2000
  3. Children and Armed Conflict: International Law/United Nations by the Center for Defence Information
  4. Children and Armed Conflict: UN enters “era of application” in its campaign against child soldiers, Center for Defence Information October 12, 2005
  5. ICRC Commentary on Protocol I: Article 77 website of the ICRC ¶ 3183-3191 also ¶ 3171
  6. Staff. Background Briefing: Child Soldiers and the Child Labor Convention, Human Rights Watch.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Child Soldiers Global Report 2004(PDF) Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers pp. 18,159-161
  8. Child Soldiers Global Report 2004(PDF) Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers p. 217
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bureau Report LTTE rebels make child recruitment illegal: Report, Zee News October 27, 2006
  10. UNICEF condemns abduction and recruitment of Sri Lankan children by the Karuna group, UNICEF 22 June 2006
  11. Child Soldiers Global Report 2004(PDF) Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers p. 292
  12. Child Soldiers Global Report 2004(PDF) Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers p. 304 cites in footnote 18 that this Information is from Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), March 2004.
  13. [1] This link is dead as of 9 May 2007)
  14. Israel/Occupied Territories: Palestinian armed groups must not use children 23 May 2005
  15. Promises Broken. Human Rights Watch. URL accessed on 2007-02-06.
  16. Colombia: Armed Groups Send Children to War Human Rights News a website of Human Rights Watch February 22, 2005

See also

  • ChildVoice International
  • Ender's Game
  • Human shield
  • Ishmael Beah
  • Lord's Resistance Army
  • Lwów Eaglets
  • Minors detained in the global war on terror
  • Trafficking in children
  • Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention
  • Blood Diamond (film)

External links