By: IRIN News
JOHANNESBURG, 12 February 2023 (IRIN) - 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.
The broad categorization of girl soldiers as victims of sexual abuse obscures the fact that they are often highly valued militarily. While sexual abuse is believed to be widespread, girls’ vulnerability may vary, as attitudes toward women differ extensively across militias: In Colombia, the Marxist-leaning groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) treated female soldiers as equal to males, while right-wing paramilitary groups were known to embrace gender stereotypes.
Some have argued that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes (DDR) are ill-equipped to address the needs of girls. DDR was designed for adult male combatants, and over the years has incorporated female combatants, followed by boy soldiers and then girls.
A January 2013 World Bank briefing, Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations, says: “The use of girls [by armed forces] has been confirmed in Colombia, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], East Timor, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and West Africa. There are some 12,500 in DRC. However, girls are generally less visible and up to now have hardly benefited from demobilization and reintegration programmes for child soldiers.”
“No one knows what has happened after a DDR process to the large majority of girls associated with the armed groups,” the briefing said.
About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child soldier DDR programmes dwindles to five percent or less.
Girls often conceal their association with armed groups, Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told IRIN. In traditional societies, enrolling in DDR could confirm a past that imperils their future: “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,” he said.
Seeking gender equality
Then there is the uncomfortable reality that some conflicts may actually fast-track gender emancipation.
A 2012 report by Tone Bleie of the University of Tromsø’s Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) explores this issue. During Nepal’s civil war, when Maoists conscripted “one member per house”, some parents offered their daughters to spare “sons whom they considered as their life insurance.” Of the Maoists’ 23,610 combatants at the cessation of hostilities, 5,033 were female, and of them 988 were girls.
“Female combatants developed a new sense of pride and dignity due to personal sacrifices, military courage, feats in the battlefield and prospects of promotion in the ranks,” the report says.
In the wake of Nepal’s 2006 ceasefire, during the cantonment of Maoists rebels and the subsequent reintegration process, girls and women were returned “to [the] very low position of women in traditional Nepalese feudal society,” Desmond Molloy, a panellist at the International Research Group on Reintegration at the CPS, told IRIN.
“Inter-cast marriage, and marriage in general, was encouraged in the cantonment. This is taboo in Nepali society and proved a major obstacle for reintegration of young girls back into society, especially when they have children, as many do. Further there is in [Nepal’s] society a perception of a promiscuous environment in the cantonment. So many young girls were viewed with suspicion by their families, rejected by their new in-laws or ostracized by the community,” Molloy said.
Abdul Hameed Omar, programme manager for the UN Development Programme’s Interagency Rehabilitation Programme, told IRIN that acceptance of inter-cast marriages was particularly problematic. “Children have been denied birth certificates, and women have been denied their citizenship certificates. When the community knows that a woman has been part of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], these women sometimes face a stigma,” he said.
He said attitudes of male Maoist ex-combatants “vary widely” but that “many voiced opinions that were not in line with their previous [gender equality] beliefs during the conflict. Other male ex-combatants who played traditionally female roles during the conflict, i.e., cooking or childcare, no longer feel that these are appropriate roles for men outside of the PLA.”
Loss of power
Many Colombian girl soldiers, who fought as equals to their male counterparts, struggled with the double standards of civilian life.
“For some girls, belonging to an illegal armed group gives them a sense of power and control that they may not otherwise experience living in a relatively conservative, ‘machista’ [chauvinist] society,” said Overcoming Lost Childhoods, a Care International report about rehabilitating Colombian child soldiers.
By the end of Eritrea’s 30-year-long liberation war, in 1991, females comprised between 25 and 30 percent of combatants. The gender-equality ideals espoused by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) had proved an attractive lure for female recruits, including some who were teenagers or younger.
But “many Eritrean female ex-fighters experienced the years of war as preferable to the time that came afterwards… They had felt respected, equal and empowered, but this was all lost after the war when women were pushed towards traditional gender roles,” said the 2008 report Young Female Fighters in African Wars, Conflict and Its Consequences.
Eritrea’s DDR programmes initially tailored economic opportunities for women to traditional gender roles - basket weaving, typing and embroidery - but this did not provide a sustainable livelihood. Training women in traditionally male trades also proved fruitless because society’s norms ultimately dictated who could get which jobs.
“Furthermore, female ex-fighters had a hard time getting married after the war as men usually claimed that these women had lost their femininity during the war. Many male ex-fighters also divorced their fighter wives for this reason and married civilian women,” the report said.
Girl soldiers’ versatility - they serve as combatants, spies, domestics, porters and “bush wives” - makes them highly valued among armed groups, which can also increase their difficulty reintegrating into civilian life.
Despite this, punishments for girls in northern Uganda, such as whipping or caning, were meted out for the smallest infractions, Linda Dale, director of Children/Youth as Peacebuilders (CAP), told IRIN.
“There is a strong tendency to force a kind of passivity on girls while at the same time they are expected to be combatants. This duality, as well as the effect of sexual violence, makes their rehabilitation more complicated, in my view,” she said.
The length of captivity also differed between the sexes; average internment period for girls in northern Uganda was six to seven years, while boys faced about three years, Dale said. “Because of that, the effects of the experience, and therefore the need for more assistance in re-integration, will be higher. For example, many girl returnees are illiterate because they have been out of school so long.”
Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative told IRIN that some girls can be seen as suffering from Stockholm syndrome, where captives develop a sympathetic association with their abusers.
“Girls were raped but then given to or chosen by a commander to be a ‘wife’. They are confused about their experiences, their guilt, their families’ expectations and religious beliefs. Additionally, many have children fathered by their captors. They are often rejected when they return home and viewed as non-marriageable material, damaged goods. With this kind of a homecoming, it creates confusion about your identity and your self-worth,” she said.
The assumptions and expectations of people operating DDR programmes may also affect girls’ reintegration.
Girl soldiers are often assumed to be “‘following along’, rather than girls who have been recruited and used, however informally, for military purposes… These assumptions have resulted in tens of thousands of girls being literally ‘invisible’ to DDR programmers, although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years,” said Clarke of Child Soldiers International.
Phillip Lancaster, former head of the DDR programme for the UN Organization Mission in DRC, told IRIN, “Boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear.” DDR programmes might “ignore girls on the assumption that they don’t present the same threat.”
“My own experience is that girls are often invisible to DDR programmes that draw narrow categories around the notion of combat,” he said. “It’s tricky to avoid getting caught up in categories as soon as one starts trying to define parameters of qualification for DDR programmes, and most of the decisions tend to have a somewhat arbitrary flavour simply because of the complexity of the subject matter.
“Most of the Congolese armed groups… draw on local community resources… The definition of girl child soldier in this setting could, in theory, extend over all the young females in a community who were supporting, supplying, informing or directly fighting with a relevant armed group.”