Broken Futures: Children and Armed Conflict

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Children suffer tremendously during war, with many tragically killed, injured, or orphaned. But what happens to child combatants in armed conflicts? 

Conflicts, war, and ethnic strife have always been part of human history. What makes modern armed conflicts different is that they are more damaging for young people, and the damage is long-lasting. Contemporary conflicts are often fought within civilian areas, urban or rural, where institutions like schools and hospitals, homes, and agricultural land are damaged, and civilian populations are displaced. Increasingly, children are recruited by state and non-state actors to join armed groups and fight in violent conflicts. When the fabric of a nation is destroyed by armed conflict, securing and maintaining a lasting peace is more difficult. Seeking truth and justice, building back communities, and offering hope to the next generation is a much more arduous process.

These armed conflicts erupt for a variety of reasons: historical grievances, political differences, religious and ethnic strife, economic reasons or for the control of valuable resources. In most countries, it is recognized that anybody under the age of eighteen is classified as a child and deserves to be protected, nurtured, mentored, and cared for. At the end of 2022, multiple international NGOs reported the sobering statistic of more than 450 million children — or one in six — are living in a conflict zone. A record 36.5 million children were displaced from their homes because of conflict, violence, and other crises.

It was in 1996 when Graça Machel presented her seminal report, the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, to the UN General Assembly. It laid bare the scope and scale of how children’s lives are impacted during armed conflict. The report was a culmination of three years of research in the field with leaders and experts within military organizations, governments, media organizations, religious organizations, and civil society.

The report outlined the myriad ways children were deprived of their rights to survival, protection, health, education, and their right to live with their families and communities and develop into productive citizens, as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990). The report also explained how children are recruited and used by armed forces, violated, exploited, sometimes sexually abused and eventually displaced and stateless as refugees of conflict. The report called on everyone to accept the findings and to act. Because of this report, today, the UN has established mechanisms that present a detailed picture of the impact of armed conflicts on children.

Children’s participation in armed conflict is not a recent phenomenon but has a long history..,[They] serve as combatants, spies, informers, messengers, porters, cooks, and girls especially become sex slaves.

UNICEF (2022), in a recent publication, 25 Years of Children and Armed Conflict: Taking Action to Protect Children in War, reported on the impact of armed conflict on children since 2005. The report included only data that could be verified on six major violations. Close to 104,100 children were listed as killed or maimed due to direct or indirect actions during armed conflict. This included actual torture, killing, arrests, landmines, destruction of property and suicide attacks. About 93,000 or more children were voluntarily or forcibly recruited into armed groups.

These boys and girls were recruited by either state or non-state actors and used as combatants, cooks, servants, spies, and porters. Girls were, at times, forced into marriages and or used for sexual purposes. Thirteen thousand nine hundred plus attacks on schools and hospitals resulting in their partial or total destruction was the third violation that was reported. 25,700 + abducted. UNICEF reported 14,200+ verified cases of rape or other forms of sexual violence since 2005. This category included acts of sexual slavery and/or trafficking, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, forced marriage and pregnancy. Twenty-five thousand seven hundred plus children were abducted either temporarily or permanently, including those who were recruited into the armed forces. 14,900 plus children were denied humanitarian assistance by parties involved in the armed conflict.

The global community has come a long way in understanding the impact of armed conflict on the lives of children. We have the monitoring tools and the mandate to intervene. We owe it to the world’s children to respond to their needs, meet them where they are and demonstrate our commitment to making a difference in their lives.

Children’s participation in armed conflict is not a recent phenomenon but has a long history. With technological advances, armaments are lighter, smaller, easily portable, and still very lethal. In the armed groups, children serve as combatants, spies, informers, messengers, porters, cooks, and girls especially become sex slaves. After the Second World War, in particular, the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers has been clearly identified as a violation of international human rights, multiple laws, conventions, and treaties.

It is widely condemned, and yet it persists. The reasons for this are global as well as local. Looking at the larger global context, the most recent reports from the 2030 agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals showed the world had made remarkable progress in reducing poverty by half until the COVID-19 pandemic. Pockets of persistent poverty remain and are more prevalent in fragile states. Recovery from the pandemic has been slow and uneven, and the challenges of poverty and the slow pace of development coexist with climate risks. These risks are more intense in conflict areas where it is not clear whether poverty breeds conflict or if conflict breeds poverty in a never-ending cycle. Children who are forcibly recruited into armed groups are usually street children, orphans, the rural poor, school dropouts, refugees and others who are displaced, and those who have slipped out from social safety nets or never had them to begin with.

In some conflicts, when governments and local state actors come down on their own civilian populations with a heavy hand, it gives young people more local and proximate reasons to join the opposition forces that promise them freedom, liberation, and a better future. Non-state actors who do not fall into traditional definitions of an armed group or a fighting force and have connections with criminal, drug, and trafficking networks also recruit children into their networks. Children and disaffected youth in these situations are seeking protection, security, shelter, food and perhaps revenge for the destruction of their communities and families. As conflicts get prolonged and drag out, being a child soldier is all that is familiar and relatively safe for young people, making it harder to leave.

Around the world, children and young people grow up in families and communities that provide protection, security, mentoring, nurturing, and the development of their physical, mental, spiritual, and intellectual needs. Every war and conflict is different, and its impact on civilian populations varies by cultural context. War and conflict usually erupt in low-income countries where the citizens do not have a strong foundation for having all their basic needs met. These are the same countries that have inferior quality schools and health care and offer fewer opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.

It is a tragedy, then, when armed groups target the existing school’s health care economic infrastructure for destruction that instigate the dispersion of families and communities. The forced displacement and migration of the civilian populations are sometimes temporary but could also be permanent. This is particularly so since World War Two, where the displacement from war and conflict is longer, sometimes for years, with the populations remaining in limbo with no place to go and no clear pathway to a future.

The breakdown of the social and economic infrastructure makes the post-conflict rebuilding and rehabilitation of the communities much harder and more expensive. Camps for displaced populations can also breed new problems and conflicts as the new arrivals compete with the local populations for food, water, firewood, and livelihoods. Lax security can make these camps targets for armed groups and traffickers looking for recruits. Children in these camps can also be impacted by conflicts between groups in the camp. Women and girls face the constant risk of rape and sexual abuse from within the camps and/or when they venture out of the camps in search of food, water, firewood, or work.

Conflict and war also have a profound long-term impact on the physical and mental health of children and adults. They can be killed, maimed, or permanently disabled by the fighting itself, landmines, or the unexploded ordinance. During war and conflict, food insecurity, water insecurity, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and disease outbreaks are everyday experiences. They can persist post-conflict unless rebuilding infrastructure is not prioritized. The psychological scars, trauma and PTSD, which are less visible, need to be addressed through professional therapy and rehabilitation. Without that, children and adults will struggle to rebuild their lives and communities.

For any population emerging from armed conflict, it is an exceedingly long, difficult road towards lasting peace. Homes, offices, community spaces, schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges must be rebuilt. Food production and distribution transportation systems have to be rebuilt. All this is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. When a conflict ends, the child and adult combatants have to be disarmed, demobilized, and reintegrated into society. The international community, UN agencies, and other non-profit organizations have much experience dealing with post-conflict communities worldwide. The speed and success of these efforts will depend on the long-term commitment and financing of these endeavors.

The short-term and long-term impacts of war and conflict have been studied for a long time. We are more aware nowadays of how civilians, especially children, are impacted in conflict zones. We are also more keenly aware of how armed factions recruit, train, and mobilize children during war and conflict. We also have mechanisms and tools at our disposal to track and measure these variables. In areas of armed conflict, it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that children are not recruited into war, and if they are, that they are given the opportunity to be rehabilitated with care by attending to their physical and emotional needs.

We owe it to innocent civilians and vulnerable children to keep these lessons in mind and prevent conflicts from happening in the first place. To do this, it is essential to recognize how persistent poverty and inequality create conditions that are ripe for the emergence of conflict anywhere in the world. Therefore, investing in poverty alleviation, sustainable development, and education makes excellent sense. Wars probably won’t ever disappear from our world, but we still need to commit to ensuring that children grow up with the best opportunities to thrive, learn, and contribute to society.


Briggs, J. (2005). Innocents lost: When child soldiers go to war. Basic Books.

Dupuy, K.E. & Peters, K. (2010). War and children: A reference handbook. Praeger Security International.

Gates, S. & Reich, S. (2010). Child soldiers in the age of fractured states. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Honwana, A. M. (2006). Child soldiers in Africa. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Machel, G. (1996). The Impact of armed conflict on children. United Nations Document A/51/306 and Add.1.1996. United Nations.

Tabak, J. (2020). The child and the world: child-soldiers and the claim for progress. University of Georgia Press.

Tynes, R. (2018). Tools of war, tools of state: when children become soldiers. SUNY Press.

United Nations Children’s Fund (2022). 25 years of Children and armed conflict: Taking action to protect children in war.UNICEF.

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