Child Soldiers: Should we protect or prosecute?

The following is a blog post by undergraduate students from UoP’s Geographies of Children and Young People module.

Many of you might want to put the idea of child soldiers to the back of your mind or not be aware of the severity of the topic. Surprisingly, there are estimated to be over 300,000 child soldiers globally. The United Nations definition states that any child under the age of 18 years-old that is either associated or partaking in armed conflict, is categorised as a child soldier. This raises the question of whether child soldiers should be classed as victims of war or criminals that need to be punished for their actions.

International criminal law has distanced itself from the prosecution of children by allowing countries to decide through using their own legislation. Across the world the age for criminal responsibility differs from country to country, starting from as young as six years-old. However, Article 38 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that if a child is fighting in an armed conflict under the age of 15, it is recognised as an international war crime. Therefore, children below the age of 15 who have been child soldiers are protected from prosecution, but children between the ages of 15 to 18 can be held accountable. Only one child has ever been convicted of war crimes since World War II, with many others being seen as victims.

It must be remembered that child soldiers are often drugged and are regularly threatened with physical or life threatening consequences if they do not comply with soldiers’ orders. Consequently, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have tried to prevent children’s involvement in war) have tried to prevent children’s involvement in war, whilst also providing protection and aiding rehabilitation in the aftermath. These campaigns often portray the innocence of childhood, drawing upon Western ideologies. These ideologies did not exist prior to the fifteenth century but have developed to focus on education, protection and a nurturing environment, producing a socially constructed childhood. War Child has used emotive imagery in their campaigns, highlighting that the reality of a child soldier’s life is far from the ideal of the perfect childhood pictured in the Western world.

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War Child Campaign poster – Authors’ own

The value of rehabilitation for child soldiers has been recognised by UNICEF with their work in Sri Lanka. They have opened up centres in order to provide support, safety and security for child soldiers in a ‘non-military’ environment before they re-enter society. Their goal is to create a safe place where they can start to rehabilitate child soldiers in order to try and restore their childhood.  Schemes like this have enabled child soldiers to have a life after war. For example, Rajeewan an ex-child soldier who was kidnapped by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at the age of 13 was forced to fight until the age of 19. The rehabilitation scheme run by UNICEF allowed him to rebuild his life and he now makes a living as an ice-cream truck driver, enabling him to support his family.  The work addressing the issue of child soldiers appears to focus on supporting them in the aftermath of their involvement in war. This work is crucial but with a large number of child soldiers actively fighting in wars, more may need to be done to prevent their involvement in the first place.


Thirteen-year-old Vietnamese Soldier

The reality is that many children have formed political beliefs. We can see this on a formal platform such as the UK’s youth parliament and in the commentaries of young people in online political debates. The political agency of young people can influence their everyday life decisions and spark a participation in political activism. The height of political activism can be seen as fighting for your cause and what you believe in. Children are encouraged to participate in political activism and the UN state that it is their right to do so. Article 12 and 15 of the UNCRC establish the right of the child to express their own views and opinions, alongside the right to participation, within the constraints of the law.

It appears that the political agency of the child is only to be only to be recognised if it aligns with mainstream beliefs. Child soldiers may be fighting for a cause they believe in, but their political agency may be overlooked if they are viewed solely as innocent. A disregard for the root cause of their criminality is a challenge for those working to prevent the child’s involvement in war. If a child grows up in a war zone, feelings of fear can often develop into anger.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 14.25.48It is much harder to feel sympathy for that grown man with a gun


Scholars have shown the ‘in-betweeness’ of young people adds more complexity to the debate associated with child soldiers and their accountability. The case of Omar Khadr has been particularly controversial. Omar was convicted at the age of 15 and detained in Guantanamo Bay for killing a US solider in Afghanistan. The argument presented by the Canadian government to oppose his release was that he should have ‘known better. This case has divided opinions with civil rights groups condemning Omar’s prosecution.

The subject matter of the accountability of child soldiers is a current affair and one that requires debate. The inconsistency in the treatment of child soldiers must be addressed, there is a lack of clarity on how a child soldier should be treated if they have committed crimes which breach the law. The desire to view child soldiers as innocent victims cannot be universally applied. Some children want to fight and have committed war crimes, in these instances their political agency cannot be ignored. We do not suggest all child soldiers deserve convictions. However, we do see the value of considering both the age of the child and a political agency they may have when working to address this issue.


Harriet Whitfield, Sophie Edwardson, Lydia Kane


Can we still teach about media bias in the post-truth age?

Following on from our earlier re-blog of David Buckingham’s insightful piece on the role of media literacy in response to fake news, here is his latest piece focusing on the matter of media bias.

David Buckingham

Bias – along with related ideas like objectivity, impartiality and balance – is a staple issue in public debates about media, and in media literacy education. Yet in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign, the victory of Donald Trump, and the attacks on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, many have argued that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. In this context, is bias still a useful and meaningful concept in media literacy education? And if so, how should we teach it?

Two weeks ago, the BBC Trust – the body that regulates the UK’s national public service broadcaster – ruled that its chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, had breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in her reporting of a story involving the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the Trust is not exactly the most ferocious of media regulators, the ruling might have been rather surprising; although…

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How to talk to children about politics… and Donald Trump


screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-10-57-17Article in the Orlando Sentinel

As we’ve been finding out through our research, many parents question whether they should discuss world events with their children, or if it’s best to just to try to shield them from worrying events all together. As Stephens (1995, p14) notes in her discussion of the sentimentalisation of childhood, our ideal conception of the child is one founded on innocence, with no engagement with matters of sex, money and politics. 

“Modern children are supposed to be segregated from the harsh realities of the adult world and to inhabit a safe, protected world of play, fantasy, and innocence”

Parents we’ve meet during our ethnographic research have expressed how they sometimes struggle to respond when their children demonstrate knowledge of events such as beheadings by terrorist groups. Such concerns demonstrate how it is naive to believe we can shield children from the realities of the wider world. This is especially the case with the growth of social media.

“Children today are more exposed to world events than ever and despite the urge to protect our children from what’s happening, this can mean their worries build up. (John Cameron, Head of NSPCC Helplines, quoted in the Huffington Post)”

A recent NSPCC study revealed there has been a 35% rise in children who have had counselling for anxiety in 2016, compared to last year. Alongside personal and family issues, concerns about world affairs such as the EU referendum, the US election and troubles in the Middle East were also frequently mentioned as causes of anxiety.

Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of the Good Toy Guide Ltd, CEO of Fundamentally Children and member of the Ludic Geopolitics Project Advisory Board, recently offered advice on how to talk to children about world affairs and politics in an interview with the Huffington Post.

“Conversations that happen in front of a child, that don’t involve the child can be scary, so try and hold the conversation in a way that the child could join in with if they wanted to, otherwise leave the more complex or disturbing topics for when the children are out of earshot.”

Read the full article here.

Young People and the EU Referendum — materialsensibilities

This morning’s #Brexit news gives pause for thought as I put together the material for a new third year geography unit we’re launching this coming academic year: Geographies of Children and Young People. An understanding of young people’s agency and participation sits at the core of this unit. Polls from a variety of sources show […]

via Young People and the EU Referendum — materialsensibilities

HOT OFF THE PRESS! Ludic Geographies

Hot on the heels of the first academic publication arising from our Ludic Geopolitics project is a chapter on ‘Ludic Geographies’ in the Evans and Horton edited collection Play and Recreation, Health and Wellbeing. This collection is volume 9 of the Living Reference Work Geographies of Children and Young People edited by Tracey Skelton.

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To whet your appetite:


In many ways, twenty-first century (western) childhood may be characterized by a cacophony of moral panics. Spatiality is pertinent, if not central, to these moral panics, not least those concerning contemporary children’s play. Yet, despite this, the presence of spatiality within play research beyond the geographical discipline is, at best, marginal. This chapter examines how geographical work is well placed to challenge problematic characteristics of agenda-setting discourses about children’s play. This is not restricted to the marginal presence of spatiality but extends to the nostalgic reification of “innocent” play, the valorization of a developmental approach, and a limited apprehension of embodiment and materiality. The chapter begins with an overview of geographical work that has favored the outdoor spaces of the playground, street, and neighborhood and emphasizes how children’s independent spatial mobility has changed over time. It then introduces more recent and emerging trends, namely, attempts to (1) position children’s play within a broader context and stress its contribution to the reproduction and shaping of “adult” society and (2) recognize vitality as the intrinsic purpose and value of play and the role of materiality, embodiment, and affectivity to this. While it is shown there is much to celebrate in relation to geographical research on play, it is argued that geographers could and should do more to better understand play from the player’s perspective and challenge the prevailing direction of play research beyond the discipline.


British Armed Forces – Cold War – Developmentalism – Embodiment, Industrial capitalism – Industrial Revolution – Learning process – Materiality Public space – Social agency – Social transformation – Socialization Toxic childhood syndrome – UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)

(Woodyer et al 2016 pp.1-2)

The chapter includes a discussion of war play and how it does not merely reflect the socio-political life of its period, but rather actively helps to shape and reproduce geopolitical climates and cultures. We use Fraser MacDonald’s (2008) work on toy rockets to show how this was the case in the Cold War era. We then draw upon our research with Action Man enthusiasts to discuss this in relation to the Falklands War, before using our research material on the more contemporary HM Armed Forces action figure range to show how this continues in relation to the War on Terror.

See more…

Thanks to Bethan Evans and John Horton for inviting us to be part of this interesting collection and for their work alongside editor-in-chief, Tracey Skelton, in putting it together.