The heart of the modern child soldier crisis is a problem of place, context and imagination. Despite the deeply felt concerns of humanitarian, human rights and children’s rights organizations – and the embodiment of these concerns in contemporary international criminal law – there are far fewer child soldiers in the world today than there were in the past. Indeed the evidence makes plain that the contemporary number of children under arms is a fraction of the vast numbers of children who had fought as soldiers in centuries past. Clear analysis of the actual circumstances and experiences of child soldiers has been hindered by the dominance of advocacy-driven narratives of child recruitment that confound empirical analysis. For historians, social scientists and others trying to engage in research and understanding of the issues surrounding the recruitment of the young, the adoption of the language of advocacy as the language of inquiry separates researchers from the experiences of real children and young people. The result is an impoverished analysis of child recruitment. Renewed emphasis on historical and comparative analysis, together with greater attention to localized issues, moves the analysis of child soldier recruitment onto far stronger empirical ground.
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