Child soldier levels doubled since 2012 and girls’ exploitation is rising

London, 11 February 2019

The number of children used in armed conflict around the world has more than doubled since 2012 with a 159% rise and almost 30,000 recruitment cases verified, new analysis ahead of International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers reveals.

Child Soldiers International’s analysis of the most recent UN annual reports on Children and Armed Conflict, covering 2012 to 2017, reveals a total of 29,128 verified cases of child recruitment in 17 countries with an upward trend: the 2018 report, covering the year 2017, details 8,185 verified cases in 15 countries – a 159% rise on the 2013 report, which details 3,159 cases in 12 countries during 2012.

The exploitation of girls is rising too. Girls associated with armed groups and forces totalled 893 in the 2018 report; four times more than the 216 recorded in 2017.

However, as girls are largely used in ‘support’ roles and kept away from frontlines, they are not often perceived as associated by armed actors or communities. Consequently, they can fall outside official statistics and go unseen by child protection agencies - and thus this number is likely far higher.

Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and persistent unrest in Somalia, South Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic and elsewhere are all leaving children increasingly exposed to recruitment. Boys and girls are routinely being used as fighters and at checkpoints, as informants, to loot villages and as domestic and sexual slaves.

Report data also shows a 40% increase in sexual violence; 951 cases or incidents were verified globally in the 2018 report compared to 679 in 2013. The latest report exposes how girls aged seven were raped in Myanmar, in Somalia they were assaulted when collecting firewood and 13 girls in South Sudan were gang-raped by armed actors.

The data is distressing but only represents the tip of the iceberg.

Improvements in verification methods are likely in part responsible for the rise and while numbers are not absolute due to difficulties of data collection in conflict zones, the figures show child exploitation is being increasingly observed in today’s global conflicts.

On International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers (12 February), we call on all actors to take urgent action to stem these shocking trends. From affected communities to central governments and UN Headquarters, resources must be prioritised to facilitate the protection and release of children and crucially, deliver sustainable support for those freed.

There has been positive news in recent months. The UN facilitated the release of more than 900 children in South Sudan in 2018, Nigeria’s Civilian Joint Task Force released 833 children in October, while December saw 56 boys released from the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Yet much more work is needed. The UN has backed calls for additional funding and described providing reintegration assistance to children as ‘mission impossible’ with current resources. It is estimated that of over 55,000 children since 2013 freed only 70% received support. As countless more children escape armed groups and armed forces independently, that percentage is likely to be much lower.

In 2015-2018, 17,141 children were formally released in DR Congo, according to new UNICEF data shared with Child Soldiers International in January. However, only 8,043 children (2,394 girls) have been enrolled in UNICEF support programmes since January 2015. Although this has increased by 22% over the period, the disparity in releases and reintegration support points to the challenges of delivering assistance to returning children.

Yet to reverse these trends, measures must be taken to improve prevention and assistance at the community level. Ultimately, families and communities are on the front line of prevention and cure, and our efforts must be driven by affected communities and their returning children – it cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. In doing so, we will be more effective in preventing future recruitment and giving formerly associated children the opportunity to move forward with their lives.

Isabelle Guitard, Child Soldiers International Director, said: “Child recruitment is among the most desperate human rights issues of our time. These statistics alone are shocking and probably only scratch the surface on the true scale of child exploitation by armed actors around the world. It is critical the world doesn’t turn a blind eye to this ongoing abuse and that local and international resources are amplified and combined to tackle it more effectively.”

Virginia Gamba, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said: “The reintegration of former child soldiers into their communities requires long-term commitment and extensive support from the international community. To address the urgent gaps and needs of current reintegration programmes, my Office in collaboration with UNICEF has launched the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers. We want to explore ways to ensure that every boy and girl released receives the best support possible wherever they are.”


Notes to editors

Child Soldiers International is a human rights organisation based in London. The organisation works to end the military recruitment and use of children through international advocacy, campaigns and in-country projects. For more information:

Statistics are based on analysis of the UN Secretary-General’s Children and Armed Conflict Annual Reports from 2013 to 2018. The numbers do not represent absolute counts on child recruitment but are indicative of global trends. The numbers only relate to verified recruitment cases and exclude other non-verified cases referenced in the reports. In total, 23 countries are named as having recruited children over the period.

Contact: Chris Matthews at / +44 207 324 4641