Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach
Children and violence: an introductory, international and interdisciplinary approach

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.4 Why shouldn't children fight?

Click here [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   to view Reading C


There are many reasons why, ideally, children should not be allowed to join armies, but there are also reasons why children might want to fight and to protect themselves and their families. In Reading C (above), John Ryle puts forward a controversial argument about letting children fight and the reasons why, in some instances, they should. His argument is countered by Amnesty International's Martin Macpherson. Which viewpoint do you most agree with? Why?


John Ryle argues that if children are in peril, then they have a right to self-defence and to protect their families. To keep them out of the army may compromise other rights, such as the right to have an opinion, to bodily integrity, to protection of life and property. He is particularly concerned to draw a distinction between voluntary and forced recruitment, claiming that this is more of a problem than age. In contrast, Martin Macpherson argues that children should never fight and sees the distinction between voluntary enrolment and force as untenable. He defines a child as any person under eighteen and feels that this line can, and must, be drawn to protect children from armed conflict.

Part of the idea of childhood innocence is the notion that children should be free from ideological motivation or political involvement. Yet, as John Ryle argues, there may be circumstances in which children should fight for a cause in which they believe. An important case here is that of the role of youth movements against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Children took an active part in the struggle, raising questions about whether, in the face of an illegal and brutal regime, it is morally right for children to fight. Often children were specifically targeted by the police and subjected to arbitrary whippings, detentions, tear-gassing or shootings. Between 1984 and 1986, 300 children were killed by the police, 1,000 wounded, 11,000 detained without trial, 18,000 arrested on charges related to protesting and 173,000 held in police cells (Cairns, 1996, p. 113). Given these statistics, it can be argued that South African children had no choice but to fight back. They were being directly targeted and their actions were in self-defence. Since the end of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has been set up to examine the injustices of the apartheid era. However, rather than celebrating children's resistance and their important role in the struggle, it has reduced many children to the role of victim, looking at crimes against them but not always recognizing their organization, their political commitment or their bravery.

Although the majority of child soldiers are in countries of the South, historically child soldiers and sailors have played an important part in European military history. One of the first acts of the Duke of Wellington when leading troops during the Napoleonic Wars was to put a stop to boys under eighteen (often in fact aged between ten and twelve) buying commissions in the army and leading troops into battle. More recently, in Europe during the First World War, children as young as fifteen signed up to fight and, even when they were obviously under age, the authorities turned a blind eye to their recruitment. Similarly, towards the end of the Second World War, Nazi Germany conscripted fifteen-year-olds into the army to make up for the numbers lost on the Russian front. There is also a long tradition in the UK of sending children to sea as a form of education and apprenticeship, from all classes – even royal children, such as Edward VII, who was sent to sea at fourteen in 1855.

Activity 5 Child soldiers in Britain

Timing: 0 hours 10 minutes

In the UK, in 2001, there were 6,000 soldiers under the age of eighteen serving in the armed forces. In March 2002, under pressure from the European Union, the government stated that these soldiers would no longer be sent into combat positions. However, Article 38 of the UNCRC states that fifteen is the minimum age for recruitment and there is no law which forbids children under eighteen to fight. What do you think are the arguments for and against keeping soldiers under eighteen out of armed combat?


Until March 2002, the British government argued that, as there was no conscription, serving in the military was voluntary and therefore it was allowing young people the choice to serve their country if they so wished. Critics of this policy pointed to the discrepancy between children being allowed to fight in the UK army at sixteen, while still being considered children under international law. Furthermore, during the Gulf War, five British child soldiers were killed in action, which many saw as unacceptable. Barry Donnan, a young man who signed up to join the British Army at sixteen and saw combat in the Gulf War at seventeen, clearly sees this policy as potentially damaging to young people.

Perhaps if I'd been a bit older then, you know I'd probably have had a better chance of getting back to a bit of normality afterwards. And I think, being so young, with so many multiple incidents, effectively, you know you're at a point where … your nature's changing, your character's changing, and I think probably that will just stay with me for the rest of my life … I would say being young … made its differences.

(The Open University, 2003)

The accounts of child soldiers in Asia, Africa and Europe all draw attention to the ambiguous status of young people who take up arms. These ambiguities also surface when deciding how they should be treated. This is the topic of the next section, which looks at strategies for re-integrating child soldiers, especially in Africa.