KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Girls make up an estimated 40% of the world’s child soldiers, yet the rate of girls going through rehabilitation and peaceful skills-training programs is only 5%. There are several suspected reasons for this discrepancy, including the over-simplification of girls’ roles in the military, the social prejudices against female child soldiers who have been sexually abused and the lack of opportunities presented to young girls who are condemned by their communities.
Child Soldiers International writes that “[girl]child soldiers are often thought of only as ‘sex slaves’, a term that glosses over the complex roles many play within armed groups and in some national armies. This thinking contributes to their subsequent invisibility in the demobilization processes- in fact, girls are frequently the most challenging child soldiers to rehabilitate.”
Underage girls have been found in militias in Colombia, East Timor, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and throughout West Africa, as well as 12,500 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) alone.
It’s common for girls to join local militia groups when their parents can’t afford to feed them and they see no other way to live. At age 14, Nathalie Kasaki Banyanga chose to join the Gid Mai Mai, a militia group near her village in the DRC fighting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR.) Her father had died of malaria and her mother could not provide for her, so the rebel camp offered a place of comparable safety. Nsii Maombi dropped out of school in fifth grade when her parents could no long afford to send her. She spent her teenage years as a bandit stealing for the militia to live.
Girls sometimes see the militia as a way of protecting themselves from surprise attacks.
Juvénal Munubo, head of a child soldiers reintegration program for the NGO Caritas in Goma, says that “girls believe that by becoming soldiers they can also protect themselves from abuses committed by men.” Joséphine from the eastern DRC chose to join the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) to avoid a forced marriage when she was 16 years old.
Banyanga remembers no sexual abuse taking place in her unit the entire time she was a member. However, girls who volunteer to fight aren’t always exempted from becoming sex slaves. Joséphine left the militia with a child and no idea who the father was, having been raped by numerous CNDP battalion commanders. Leaving military groups is dangerous for all child soldiers, but because of their use as sex slaves, girls are often guarded within militia camps, making it nearly impossible for them to run away.
The cultural emphasis on female purity makes it very difficult for rape victims to re-assimilate after escaping their abusers. Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told Integrated Regional Information Networks that girls are hesitant to enroll in rehabilitation programs because they don’t want to admit that they were involved in an armed group. “In contexts of entrenched gender discrimination, and in situations where a girl’s ‘value’ is defined in terms of her purity and marriageability, the stigma attached to involvement in sexual activity, whether real or imputed, can result in exclusion and acute impoverishment.”
“Each girl enrolled as a combatant is persona non grata in her former community,” said Gahima, of the Centre for Transit and Orientation in Nyanzale. He explained that a girl is often considered a prostitute and treated as such due to the role she was forced to perform.
Mireille, who, at age 16, escaped her imprisonment as a sex slave and underwent rehabilitation in Nyanzale, was then turned out by her family once they learned what she had gone through. She was eventually forced to work as a prostitute to survive.
Many girls who escape the militia are doing so with small children but have no skills to feed and provide for them, and their children are equally ostracized from society because of how they were conceived. Others have contracted sexually-transmitted diseases and refuse to seek treatment because of the way their community would react.
Grace Akallo, former child soldier for Joseph Kony and recent author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children, argues against focusing too many resources on hunting down individuals. “[If] all the resources are directed towards [Kony], then what about the people who suffered under him- what kind of justice are they getting?” she said. “Even if we capture Kony today… is that the end of everything? After tomorrow, what is the next step?”
UNICEF and the United Nations Populations Fund are both actively funding rehabilitation facilities for child soldiers around the world, including new outreach programs in Nepal and Afghanistan. In addition, there are several NGOs such as Friends of Orphans and Gulu Support the Children Organisation working to train former child soldiers in peaceful ways to provide for themselves. The problem these organizations run into even when they open their doors and resources to girls, is that so few girls are willing to admit that they were once a child soldier or sex slave.
Akallo discusses her concern for these girls and the bleakness of their futures. “If you know that you have a future you work hard, but if you don’t, it’s hard,” she said. “My concern is that child soldiers and the children who are affected… they need to get resources to make sure that they’re given a second [chance]to contribute to themselves and the community that they live in.”