Soldiers are asked to carry out some of the most unimaginably difficult and horrifying tasks a human could be asked to do. They risk their own life and limb, they are sometimes forced to watch as their friends are slaughtered, they take lives and damage families, and they often come home wounded physically or mentally. This can be a difficult burden to bear, but sometimes a necessary one. It ought to be shouldered by the strong and the brave — those who seek to live the warrior lifestyle and to protect the things they love most.

Unfortunately, it is also a burden that tens of thousands of children around the world are currently forced to bear, if not more.

It’s quite difficult to accurately count the number of child soldiers in the world. Some countries are known for enlisting them in their ranks; many militant or terrorist groups are known for recruiting any and every soul they can bend to their will. None of them typically advertise their use of child soldiers, except maybe the terrorist types. They are also often recruited and used in highly volatile, poor and rural areas, far from the reach of human rights organizations who would gather data on the subject. The UN puts the number at somewhere around tens of thousands; Human Rights Watch says it’s more like hundreds of thousands.

In this photo dated Sept. 14, 2009, showing a child soldier from the Somali government with his rifle as he patrols in a street in the south of Mogadishu, Somalia. | AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor

According to Human Rights Watch, the advancement of weaponry in the last few decades has actually made it easier for militant groups without much funding to recruit child soldiers. Where they may not have been able to effectively wield a blade or carry a bulky gun, now they can easily manipulate and use small rifles or handguns. They also don’t have to serve as an infantryman — sometimes they are messengers, cooks or guards. Girls are often recruited, some to fight, many for rape or to be gifted to a higher ranking military officer and forced into marriage. Many kids are used to clear minefields — some children don’t even know they are child soldiers. In Afghanistan, some have been outfitted with suicide vests, told to go talk to American soldiers, and then detonated by a third party.

Since they are often recruited from areas rife with conflict, they might return home one day only to find out their family is gone or dead. Then they feel as if they have nowhere to go but back to the military or militia they came from. Many of the girls wind up having children with the soldiers and are trapped in a life they never asked for.

These are not just small people, they are developing human beings. Growing up in a broken family can be devastating enough for a child — growing up where murder, rape and the realities of war are common ways of life can make it immensely difficult to reintegrate into society.

A former Myanmar/Burmese child soldier has recently been charged with stealing a motorcycle and his accomplices for killing the man who owned it. As a child, he was abducted by the Burmese military, forced to serve at the age of 14 — now he is free, but facing two years of hard labor by the same government who abducted him, and he only narrowly avoided a death sentence. This is not to justify an accomplice to murder, but to shine a light on how serving as a child soldier can complicate the person’s entire life.

There are several efforts by the UN and private aid organizations who take on the arduous task of reintegrating these children back into some semblance of a normal life. They aim to give them another shot, though their childhood is likely long gone. They all joined for different reasons — some were forced, some out of revenge for a dead family member or friend, some because they believed in the cause — all of them are in dire need of help.