Girls and boys under the age of 18 are involved in most major conflicts in the world today, associated with both government armed forces and non-state armed groups. Children typically represent 10 to 40 percent of the strength of armed forces and groups. The recruitment of children – girls and boys under the age of 18 – and their use in hostilities by armed forces and groups is prohibited under international law and among the worst forms of child labour. The recruitment and use of children under age 15 by armed forces and groups constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity.
Because children cannot be legally mobilized or recruited for use in direct hostilities, children go through “release and reintegration programmes” rather than DDR programmes per se. This distinction highlights the fact that most children do not require disarmament and need not have a weapon to participate in a programme. Also, children are not ‘demobilized’ since this assumes they were officially ‘mobilized’ to serve in active hostilities.
The release of children from armed forces or armed groups is a human rights issue and must be carried out at any time, formally or informally, even during a conflict. It is not contingent on a peace agreement, a formal DDR process or any other political negotiation.
Release and reintegration programmes for children require a specialized approach, which should be overseen by child protection agencies in coordination with UN and governmental actors involved in broader DDR programmes for adult combatants. Child protection agencies and DDR planners must work in close coordination regardless of whether programmes for children and adults occur simultaneously.