Leila Zerrougui answers questions about the Recruitment and use of child soldiers

How many child soldiers are there in the world?

Tens of thousands of boys and girls are recruited and used as child soldiers by armed forces and armed groups in conflict in over 20 countries around the world.

The United Nations monitors who and where children are recruited around the world. The Secretary-General names parties to conflict who recruit and use children in his annual report on children and armed conflict.

There are currently 56 parties to conflict identified and listed by the Secretary-General because the UN has documented patterns of recruitment and use of child soldiers.

Today, we celebrate the 14th anniversary of the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The international standard set by the optional protocol establishes the minimum age for recruitment in conflict at 18.

What is it like to be a child soldier?

There are many ways for children to become associated with armed forces and groups. Some children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities, out of a feeling of revenge or for other reasons.

Their tasks can vary, from combatants to cooks, spies, messengers and even sex slaves. Each year, the UN receives reports of children in some cases as young as 8 or 9 years old associated with armed groups.

No matter their role, child soldiers are exposed to acute levels of violence – as witnesses, direct victims and as forced participants. Some are injured and have to live with disabilities for the rest of their lives.

Girls are also recruited and used by armed forces and groups. They have vulnerabilities unique to their gender and place in society and suffer specific consequences including, but not limited to, rape and sexual violence, pregnancy and pregnancy-related complications, stigma and rejection by families and communities.

Are current conflicts affecting children differently?

Children have become more vulnerable due to new tactics of warfare, the absence of clear battlefields, the use of tactics of extreme violence, the increasing number and diversity of armed groups that add to the complexity of conflicts and the deliberate targeting of traditional safe havens such as schools and hospitals.

Of growing concern is the use of children to carry or plant explosive devices. In the past few years, we have witnessed an increase in the use of child suicide bombers.

The detention of children is another concern. They can be detained because of their alleged association with an armed group, or because they have allegedly participated in hostilities. Instead of being considered the victims of the adults who recruited them, children are considered as security threats. When children are arrested, they are too often detained without due process, for long periods of time and in contravention of international standards applicable to juvenile justice.

What happens to child soldiers after their release?

Reintegration is an essential part of the work to help child soldiers rebuild their lives.

Within the UN system, UNICEF is in charge of the reintegration of former child soldiers and their first priority is to prepare them for a return to civilian life. Psychosocial support, education and/or training are important aspects of the reintegration programmes. Attempting to reunite children with their families and communities are also essential, but sensitization and reconciliation efforts are sometimes necessary before a child is welcomed back at home.

The reintegration of former child soldiers is a long process and I always remind everyone of the importance to support these programmes. By helping children deeply affected by conflict, we contribute to building a peaceful future for their country.

What can we do to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers?

Over the past 20 years, the world has come together to denounce and take action against the recruitment and use of children in conflict.

The mandate I represent was created in 1996 by the UN General Assembly following the publication of Graca Machel’s report titled the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” . The report highlighted the disproportionate impact of war on boys and girls and identified them as the primary victims of armed conflict.

Since then, the protection of children has been firmly placed on the agenda of the United Nations highest bodies, and countries around the world have become involved and strong supporters of measures to improve the protection of children affected by war.

In accordance with the mandate, I report annually to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council and the UN Secretary-General presents his findings on the situation of children in armed conflict to the Security Council.

Can you tell us more about your work?

My role is to work with as many partners as possible and to use every opportunity to improve the protection of children affected by war. To do this, I support the work of the UN to engage in dialogue with the parties listed by the Secretary-General with the goal of ending violations committed against children.

I’ll give you one example of my work through the campaign Children Not Soldiers.

Over the years, tools were developed and resolutions adopted to form the core of a strong framework to address violations against children, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Our work and advocacy are starting to bear fruit and there is now an emerging consensus among Member States that children do not belong in Government security forces in conflict and in any armed group.

Two years ago, I launched the campaign Children, Not Soldiers, to build on that consensus and to work closely with Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, the last eight states identified by the Secretary-General for the recruitment of children in their security forces.

The progress has been encouraging but our work continues. Chad has put in place all the measures required to prevent the recruitment of children and was removed from the Secretary-General’s list. The campaign has also helped to significantly reduce the number of verified cases of recruitment and use of children in some country situations.

This year, I will continue to support the Member States concerned by the campaign to help them put in place the required measures to protect boys and girls from recruitment and use. The momentum generated by the campaign has also opened up new opportunities of engagement with non-state armed groups.

The challenges we face are enormous, but by continuing to work together, I know that we can make a difference in children’s lives and get closer to our goal of ending the recruitment and use of children in conflict.