Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups: Key Non-Negotiables

Monitoring and reporting of child recruitment and use:

  • Monitoring and reporting of child recruitment and use can help reveal the extent and severity of the violations and to guarantee greater accountability for those who target, abuse or exploit children. It may also contribute to preventing unlawful recruitment and obtaining children’s release. 
  • The recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 in active hostilities is prohibited under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and is considered to constitute a ‘grave violation’ of children’s rights by the UN Security Council (UNSC). In countries identified by the UNSC where child recruitment and use is taking place, the UN is required to regularly monitor and report on this violation through an established mechanism (‘MRM’) managed through an MRM country level task force.
  • The recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 also constitutes a war crime and crime against humanity under international law.

Release of children from armed forces and armed groups:

The separation of associated children from armed forces and armed groups may happen in several ways:

  • Release of children through a formal and controlled disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programme for combatants;
  • Release of children through a formal negotiated agreement or ‘Action Plan’ between the UN and an armed force or armed group;
  • Release of children through an informal negotiated process agreed upon between the UN and an armed force or armed group;
  • The escape, capture or any other departure of children from the armed force or armed group.

The release of all children recruited or used by armed forces or armed groups must be sought unconditionally and at all times, including during armed conflict. Release of children is not dependent on the temporary or permanent cessation of hostilities, the initiation of a formal peace or DDR process or on children having weapons to forfeit. It may require separate negotiations with armed forces or armed groups unrelated to the broader political or security agenda. Where there are formal DDR processes, special provision should be made for children to ensure coordinated and comprehensive support for their rehabilitation and reintegration. Efforts to release children should be based on a comprehensive analysis of the armed force or armed group under consideration, the reasons why children have or may become associated with them, and the modalities of their recruitment. This analysis should be undertaken with an understanding of the political, social, economic and cultural context, informed by a gender analysis.

Programming considerations:

  • Actors implementing programmes for CAAFAG should coordinate their efforts by establishing an inter-agency group where inter alia: roles and responsibilities are agreed and communicated, respective modes of action are understood and respected, possible collaborative action is planned, and policy and programme approaches are defined. Reference should be made to the inter-agency child protection information management system (CPIMS), including the standard inter-agency forms related to the care of CAAFAG, case management database, and data sharing and data protection protocols (, all of which can be customized to local needs;
  • It is essential for the protection of children and their families that all personal information relating to CAAFAG should be treated as confidential to reduce risks of stigmatization and potential reprisals. Particular vigilance is required to ensure the media follows the guidelines for interviewing CAAFAG ( 
  • In all aspects of the programme, actors must recognize that girls are at risk of being ‘invisible’ during release processes and must take measures to ensure that girls are included and their particular needs are addressed through appropriate services. 

Verification, Documentation, Care Arrangements, Tracing and Family Reunification:

Programmes for CAAFAG ought to plan for and deliver the following types of support:

  • During a formal or informal process to release children from an armed force or armed group, it is important for trained child protection officers to verify that those identified are indeed below the age of 18 (i.e. children) and are ‘associated’ in some capacity with the armed force or armed group in question. This is done through a confidential interview between the child protection officer and the potential CAAFAG prior to his or her removal from the military site.
  • Once a child is verified to be a CAAFAG it is important that s/he be physically separated from the armed force or armed group as soon as possible and taken to a safe civilian location where a more detailed documentation of the child’s history and family can begin, in order to facilitate appropriate care arrangements and initiate family tracing (if required).
  • Most CAAFAG will require interim care arrangements while their families are being traced and to facilitate their transition to civilian life. To the extent possible, family based care is preferable to institutional care, as it provides continuity in socialization and development. Carers may need extra assistance to assure children’s protection and material needs are met. On an exceptional basis, temporary transit centres may need to be established where family based care cannot be relied upon. Provision must be made to monitor and follow-up on children placed in all forms of interim care. In cases where children can be immediately reunified with their families, this option should be pursued.
  • Upon arrival in transitory care, children should be provided with a kit that includes, at minimum, civilian clothing, a blanket and hygiene products, which they can take home with them. This should be standardized across different actors supporting CAAFAG.
  • A holistic approach should be taken to caring for boy and girl CAAFAG, including ensuring access to appropriate health services, psychosocial support, life skills training, recreational activities, catch-up classes, and information about reintegration support packages. Girls may have special needs, particularly if they have been sexually violated, are pregnant or have young children.
  • Tracing is the process of searching for family members or primary legal or customary care-givers. Those engaged in tracing should use the same approach and mutually compatible systems. Children should be regularly informed about progress towards tracing and contacting their families. Where family tracing is positive, the validity of relationships and the confirmation of the willingness of the child and family member to be reunited must be verified for every child. Mediation may be required between the child and the family or his/her community, particularly where negative stigmatization or reprisals are likely.
  • Where it is not possible to reunify a child with his or her own family, including extended family, alternative family-based care arrangements should be found. On an exceptional basis, independent living arrangements may be supported for small groups of CAAFAG with daily monitoring and follow-up.


Programming for CAAFAG should have as its ultimate objective the enabling of children to move forward with their lives as peaceful and productive members of society, integrated into the community and, where possible, reconciled with their family. The principal factor for reintegration is for a child to be returned to or placed in a supportive and otherwise appropriate protective environment. 

Reintegration programmes should include the following key components:

  • An inclusive approach whereby support is provided to children who have left armed forces or armed groups through formal and informal processes, as well as to other vulnerable conflict affected children identified at the community level as needing protection (e.g. girl mothers, orphans). This approach reduces risks of stigmatization and reprisals against children formerly associated with an armed force or armed group, while promoting greater equity in the delivery of assistance.
  • Support to pursue opportunities for education, vocational and skills training, and income generation or livelihood initiatives. Programmes should recognize and build upon the skills and confidence that girls and boys may have learned while associated with the armed force or armed group.  The family, including the extended family and clan, and the community should be actively incorporated in the development and implementation of interventions and activities. 
  • Peace-building activities to promote reconciliation, community caring, awareness and coping mechanisms that protect children, including through support of local child protection networks. Activities should include awareness raising about the negative impact of child recruitment and use.
  • Strengthening of existing services and support structures to address the needs of all children affected by armed conflict, including supporting local capacity to provide a protective environment for all children.

Prevention of child recruitment:

Prevention of child recruitment must address the multitude of factors that lead to child recruitment and use, i.e. whether children are forcibly recruited, join armed groups in order to escape poverty, hunger or violence, or enlist to actively support a cause or ideology or out of vengeance. Key prevention activities include:

  • Enforcement of applicable legal frameworks (national and international) and, if required, legal reform to prevent children from entering armed forces or armed groups within the jurisdiction of the State. 
  • Public information campaigns on child protection laws, community support mechanisms and the hazards for children of being associated with armed forces or armed groups. Such messaging can also inform children still in armed forces or armed groups of their right to be released and options available to them.
  • Preventing family separation and promoting rapid reunification of children with their families; early identification of vulnerable children; supporting school enrolment and retention, as well as safe attendance; providing viable alternatives to joining armed forces through educational and vocational programmes, income generating activities, and access to livelihood opportunities. 

Justice and CAAFAG:

CAAFAG should not be prosecuted or punished solely for their membership in these forces or groups.  Children accused of crimes under international law must be treated in accordance with the CRC, the Beijing Rules and related international juvenile justice and fair trial standards. Accountability measures for children alleged to have participated in crimes committed during armed conflict should be in the best interests of the child and should be conducted in a manner that takes into account their age at the time of the alleged commission of the crime, promotes their sense of dignity and worth, and supports their reintegration and potential to assume a constructive role in society. Wherever appropriate, non-judicial and restorative alternatives should be pursued that promote diversion, mediation, truth-telling and reconciliation as appropriate forms of accountability. The child should be considered primarily as a victim. If a child has been convicted for a crime, alternatives to deprivation of liberty should be put in place and advocated for. When children engage as witnesses in judicial or non-judicial accountability processes, protection procedures and legal safeguards must be in place to protect their rights before, during and after their testimony or statement.