Child Soldiers

Thirteen-year-old Jose was forcibly recruited by the Salvadoran military during the conflict in the 1980s. I photographed him at the Army training barracks.

Children have been used for military campaigns across cultures and throughout history, even when official policy and cultural mores condemn their recruitment. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers describes a “child soldier” as any person below the age of 18 who is a member of or attached to government armed forces or any other regular or irregular armed force or armed political group, whether or not an armed conflict exists.

Moreover the Coalition considers both combatant and non-combatant roles in their definition. Children described as child soldiers engage in a range of tasks: laying mines and explosives; scouting, spying, acting as decoys; couriers or guards; training drills or other preparations; logistics and support functions, portering, cooking and domestic labor. Child soldiers may also be subjected to sexual slavery or other forms of sexual abuse.

Since the 1970s a number of international conventions have come into effect that try to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts. While progress has been made the use of child soldiers continues to be widespread. As of 2007 children were involved in government or non-state armed groups in 19 countries or territories around the world, and 9 government armies still actively recruited child soldiers and at least 14 governments recruited children in auxiliary or proxy forces. Exact numbers of child soldiers are not available. However, it is a widely agreed that there are tens of thousands of child soldiers world-wide at any given time.

Many of the combatants in the insurgent ranks of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) are teenagers and children. Many have joined the rebels to escape a childhood of poverty, exploitation and or abuse at home.

Child soldiering can sometimes be a prelude to participation in other forms of armed violence. Among the first generation of gang members from both the Mara Salvatrucha and Eighteenth Street gangs (who were of Salvadoran or Guatemalan) origin I found strong anecdotal evidence of participation in the conflicts of the 1980s in roles that fit the definition of child soldiers. In my work in Colombia interviewing former child soldiers I also became aware of children who crossed the boundaries from child soldier to gang member or vice versa.

COAV a coalition which in 2003 conducted a global research project on the participation of children as actors in organized armed violence has made a persuasive argument about the importance of broadening our understanding of distinctions and overlaps in categories such as “child soldiers” and “gangs.”


17-year-old Carolina stepped on a landmine and lost her leg when she was 16. She joined the FARC guerrillas in Colombia when she was 13.

After Human Rights Watch published a chilling account of the experiences of child soldiers in the Colombian conflict, psychologist Jiovani Arias of the Two Worlds Foundation (la fundación Dos Mundos) spoke about the need to focus less on the horrendous criminal acts and more on the context which “normalized” or lead to such actions. Child soldiers are both victims and violent actors whose use of violence to gain objectives has been internalized as appropriate.

Undoing the harm done to these children often requires accompaniment in processes in which cruelty must be “unlearned.” Adapting emotionally to a world that has a different logic—one that measures actions by an ethic of how they affect others is not something that can be taken for granted.