Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Child soldiers: understanding the context

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 25 May 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:1268
  1. Daya Somasundaram, professor (
  1. Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna, Jaffna, Sri Lanka

    Concern is growing about the increasing use of child soldiers in armed conflicts around the world.1 However, it may not be enough to just condemn or prohibit the recruitment of children. We need to ask why children join armies. If we are to prevent children fighting we need to understand the conditions under which children become soldiers and work to improve these conditions. One such context, that of Sri Lanka, may shed some light on the issues.

    The reasons why children become fighters can be categorised into push and pull factors. The use of push-pull categorisation has been used recently in relation to child labour by the International Labour Organization (see and more specifically child soldiers (see

    Summary points

    The recruitment and use of children as soldiers should be condemned and prohibited

    Understanding why children choose to fight is important for preventing it

    Factors that prompt children to join armed groups include witnessing the death of relatives; destruction of homes; displacement; economic difficulties; political oppression, and harassment

    Children may be enticed by beliefs in the cause, threat to group identity, propaganda, thrill of adventure, and entrapment

    Responsibility lies not only with those recruiting children but also with the civil society, state, and international community

    Push factors


    In the civil war that has been in progress in north east Sri Lanka for almost two decades children have been traumatised by common experiences such as shelling, helicopter strafing, round ups, cordon and search operations, deaths, injury, destruction, mass arrests, detention, shootings, grenade explosions, and landmines. Studies focusing on children in war situations—for example, in Mozambique3 and the Philippines4—report considerable psychological sequelae. A detailed Canadian study of children in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka found considerably more exposure to war trauma and psychological sequelae in ethnic minority Tamil …

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