Congo’s girl soldiers struggle to return
Former girl soldiers among those taking part in a numeracy and literacy class, South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. by Child Soldiers International
Ahead of the International Day for Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, Child Soldiers International’s Sandra Olsson examines the often overlooked role of female child soldiers and the difficulties endured at war and at home.
Decades-long unrest has created thousands of child soldiers in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Since Joseph Kabila’s government passed a law in 2009 and signed an action plan with the UN in 2012, to stamp out child recruitment, the enlistment of children in the armed forces has virtually ceased.
However, there are still reports of soldiers using girls for sexual and domestic purposes and many children remain within, and continue to be recruited by, the nation’s multiple armed groups.
While international media often highlight boys’ involvement and traditional soldier-like imagery, it is estimated that up to 40 per cent of the country’s school-aged child soldiers are girls.
Some girls will carry arms and participate in fighting, but when additionally exploited as cooks, porters, spies - and often subjected to serious abuse and forced to become ‘wives’ for fighters – girls’ involvement in armed conflict goes far beyond the frontline.
In 2016, Child Soldiers International spent several months interviewing 150 former girl soldiers in Eastern DRC. The findings inform an upcoming report which puts a spotlight on their experiences and the acute problems they encounter back home.
The country’s east has been a breeding ground for many armed groups over the years.
A returning girl soldier, South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Of the girls interviewed, 66 per cent were abducted by armed groups – Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army among them. However, almost a third joined self-defence militias, known locally as ‘Mai-Mai’, ‘voluntarily’ to seek protection, to escape the poverty at home or in hope of a better life.
However, the reality is gravely different.
Seventeen-year-old Alice, who joined a Mai-Mai group for protection, told us: ‘I found a lot of children when I reached [the group]. They told me: “You would not have come if you knew what’s happening here.” I was raped on the first day. I was told I’d be killed if I fought back.’
The majority of girls we spoke with were sexually assaulted and regularly subjected to physical and mental abuse.
‘Sometimes I didn’t even know the name of the man who abused me at night,’ 16-year-old Zaina explained. ‘I wanted to escape but saw what they did to those who tried and were caught, and I was too scared.’
Among the 9,000 child soldiers freed by the United Nations in DRC between 2009 and 2015, only 7 per cent were girls.
As their roles do not often centre on direct combat, girl soldiers are kept deep in the bush by soldiers and so freeing them is much more difficult.
As a result, few are officially freed but some do manage to escape on their own accord. However, returning home brings more suffering and challenges.
Suspicion, discrimination and rejection from family and community members is commonplace, especially among returning girls, with many shunned from society. This discrimination is mainly based on the girls having had sexual relations with fighters.
‘I was called a “prostitute”. People would not allow their daughters to associate with me,’ one girl said of her experience returning home. It was an all too common narrative among the girls I spoke with.
These problems and long standing sociocultural norms makes returning difficult. This translates to girls rarely receiving reintegration assistance, and when they do it is seldom adapted to their specific needs.
Experiences at home leads some girls to return to armed groups or remain there because they fear how their communities will react.
There were other girls who had refused to leave the bush because they believed they could no longer assume the role of ‘proper women in society’, one returning girl told us.
Such perceptions reflect the complex realities faced by girl soldiers. It is possible that similar beliefs motivated the refusal of some of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria to leave Boko Haram fighters when 82 others were released.
It is critical that community attitudes and behaviours are changed, not only to halt girls re-joining armed groups, but to enable them to recover a valued position in society and fulfil their potential.
Achieving this is central to our work at Child Soldiers International.
We are working with communities, local organizations and representatives from the Congolese government and United Nations to improve the lives and opportunities afforded to the country’s returning girl soldiers.
By engaging local leaders, religious authorities and teachers to address the way returning child soldiers are treated and to involve them in community activities and events, we are tackling the stigma and discrimination which continues to fester in communities.
At a time when the country’s use of child soldiers is increasingly under the microscope amid deepening violence in its central region, it is critical that the role of girls is not overlooked and relevant support structures are strengthened to help them lead normal lives on their return home.
‘Girls like us need people to talk to about our situation,’ an 18-year-old girl said. ‘We had lost hope that there would still be people who would care about and listen to us.’
Names of individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Sandra Olsson is programme manager at Child Soldiers International, an international human rights organization which seeks to end the military recruitment of all children.