The number of child soldiers, especially girls, found being recruited around the world has risen dramatically in recent years, as armed conflicts that target children have intensified, a leading agency said on Tuesday.
Instances of girls found used by armed groups jumped fourfold last year from the year before to nearly 900, although the actual number is likely to be far higher, Child Soldiers International (CSI), a London-based rights group, said.
Children are recruited to be fighters, informants, looters, messengers, spies and as domestic and sexual slaves, it said.
They are particularly vulnerable in conflict-torn countries in the Middle East as well as in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
Conflicts have grown in regions where children are used, namely by the Islamist insurgency Boko Haram in West Africa and in war-ravaged Congo, said Sandra Olsson, CSI program manager.
In sum, more than 29,000 cases of children recruited as soldiers were verified from 2012 to 2017 in 17 countries, the group said.
The figures more than doubled to roughly 8,000 cases in 2017 in 15 countries from some 3,000 cases in 12 countries in 2012.
Actual numbers are near impossible to count but could reach the hundreds of thousands, Olsson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I think we will see children recruited anew, and we have seen that, wherever there is conflict," she said. "They are easily preyed upon.”
The higher numbers also reflect improved methods of counting cases, as the issue has gained public attention over the last two decades, she said.
Also on Tuesday, 119 children were released by an armed group in South Sudan, among them 48 girls, aid groups said.
More than 19,000 children are still being used by armed groups in South Sudan's civil war, said UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency which estimates that globally tens of thousands of children are used in conflicts.
"Despite significant progress made ... the battle is far from won," a UNICEF spokesman said in an email.
As armed conflicts have become more local, within a country or region as opposed to nations at war, children are more easily drawn in, Olsson said.
Counter-efforts include enforcing a minimum age of 18 for armed service and supporting families whose options are so limited that recruitment is seen as a way to feed, educate or protect children, experts say.
Former child soldiers are at risk of being re-recruited as well because they may be shunned and stigmatized when they return home, experts say.
CSI based its findings on analysis of the U.N.'s annual reports on children and armed conflict.