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Recruitment and roles of children

The reasons why girls and boys become associated with armed groups and armed forces vary significantly based on the context.
16 years old girl, in a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former child soldiers, in the town of N’dele, CAR

Pathways to association

Forced recruitment can take place through abduction of children from their homes, schools or other locations, or through intimidation into joining through threats or acts of violence. In some contexts, girls seem to be particularly targeted through abduction, as armed forces and armed groups (AFAG) perceive them as more obedient and flexible than boys.

In other contexts, families and communities may have to give up their children as part of a quota system imposed on communities, as part of non-age-bound conscription laws, or as an exchange in return for protection.

Propaganda is another commonly used tool to recruit girls and boys. Some armed groups and armed forces spread misleading ideas, information or rumours specifically targeting young people for the purpose of recruiting new members. Armed groups can use videos on social media, story books with heroic male and female fighters, and western style military recruitment commercials such as in North East Syria. Adolescents in charge of recruiting their peers can disseminate propaganda when they return to their community or as a dedicated task.

Economic incentive In contexts where families face extreme poverty, the prospect of access to a regular income, clothes, food or toiletries to cover basic needs can lead to child association. Promises of access to money and non-food items that are not easily accessible are often used to encourage children to enrol.

Family ties Sometimes, family ties with an armed group serve as a motivating or facilitating factor for children’s association. Some children’s parents are already part of an armed group. Children help their parents or follow in their footsteps through support roles for the armed force or armed group and/or as combatants.

Community pressure The involvement of communities in armed conflict significantly influences the recruitment of girls and boys, particularly in self-defence groups. Community ties with an armed group or defence militia can lead to pressure on families to let their girls and boys participate in the protection of the community. Children may be part of the self-defence groups while still living with their families and going to school. Armed groups can also benefit from a very strong support base in the community.

Child marriage is another preferred form of recruitment of girls, with some girls forcibly married to fighters under the threat of releasing explicit videos or pictures that will ruin the reputation of the girl and her family. Some armed groups institutionalised child marriage as a recruitment strategy for the purpose of sexual exploitation, to fulfil support roles for the armed group or force, or as a reward to the fighters.

Risk factors to recruitment

Risk factors are environmental factors, experiences or individual traits that increase the probability of a negative outcome. There are commonalities amongst young people in their trajectories to recruitment related to risk taking, reliance on peers, finding themselves, as well as other risk factors. However, the journey to association seems to be fairly individual, influenced by family, community and societal factors.

Here are some examples of risk factors of recruitment organised around the socio ecological levels.

Socio ecological levels Risk factors
Individual Need for protection, desire for empowerment, revenge, quest for personal significance, poverty, children looking for adventure, camaraderie.
Family / peers Family violence, alcohol, and substance abuse of parents, separated, unaccompanied or orphaned children, family ties with armed group or armed force.
Community Presence of community self-defence groups, lack of strong community level protection mechanism, refugee or displaced population.
Society Presence of a conflict, low presence of State, lack of economic opportunities, marginalisation of a minority group.


Girls and boys are involved in a variety of roles which are often multiple and fluid. They may have been involved in direct participation in hostilities such as combat roles in some contexts and in others, they have been indirectly involved, playing support roles, and been used for sexual purposes. In many AFAG, the roles of children are dictated by commanders, while in other AFAG, children exhibit more agency over their roles.

Examples of roles

  • Fighting on frontlines
  • Manning checkpoints
  • Conducting armed patrols
  • Gathering intelligence
  • Guarding prisoners
  • Laying mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
  • Carrying equipment, supplies, looted goods, etc.
  • Carrying out domestic and support duties
  • Acting:
    • as human shields
    • as suicide bombers
    • in execution squads
  • Serving
    • for sexual purposes (mainly girls but boys as well)
    • as bodyguards
    • as medical assistants
    • as recruiters

You can find more information on the pathways to recruitment, risk factors and roles of children in the guidelines p 11 to 16 and specific information related to girls in the technical note on girls associated with armed forces and armed groups p 6 to 8.

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Programme Design for Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (CAAFAG)

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