By Dr Cesar Chelala
For the past few decades girls have become unwilling warriors or sex partners for soldiers throughout the world. It is estimated that, between 1990 and 2003, girls as young as 13 served in military and paramilitary groups in 55 countries and participated in armed conflict in 38 of those countries. At present, more than 120,000 girls participate in armed conflicts worldwide.
According to a January 2013 World Bank briefing entitled Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations, “The use of girls [by armed forces] has been confirmed in Colombia, DRC [The Democratic Republic of Congo], Timor-Leste, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and West Africa. There about 12,500 in DRC. However, girls are generally less visible and up to now have hardly benefited from demobilization and reintegration programs for child soldiers.”
A CARE International report entitled Overcoming Lost Childhoods about rehabilitating Colombian child soldiers states, “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’ society.”
Some girls become soldiers voluntarily. In most cases, however, they are abducted and forced to participate in combat operations. Once they become soldiers, they frequently are subjected sexual exploitation and abuse.
As a result of sexual relations with and rape by fellow soldiers, they often acquire sexually transmitted infections that are particularly frequent among men belonging to both the government forces and rebel groups. In Sierra Leone, 70 to 90% of rape survivors had a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV/AIDS.
Why do some girls voluntarily become soldiers in spite of the obvious dangers? Some do it for the benefits — such as protection from domestic exploitation and abuse elsewhere. They also do it for the sense of power involved in being a soldier. In Sierra Leone, for example, girls who became “wives” of commanders were sometimes put in charge of organising raids or spying missions.
A study by the Canadian human rights organization Rights and Democracy found that 30% of the girls in three countries studied (Mozambique, Northern Uganda and Sierra Leone) became pregnant during the time they were in the armed forces. Many were stigmatised because they had been raped and later had serious difficulties trying to reintegrate into their communities.
During the protracted war in Angola, thousands of children — many of them girls — were recruited as soldiers by both the government forces and the UNITA rebels. Although there are some indications that 6,000 children were recruited by UNITA alone, Human Rights Watch estimates the actual number was much higher.
Girls can’t freely choose whether to leave the groups with whom they are fighting. Those that try to leave face a double threat: punishment if they’re recaptured, or discrimination and ostracism from the community if and when they return home. Girls who return home pregnant or with a child are made to feel that they have “dishonored” the family.
Reintegration into society is more difficult for girls than for boys, who can boast that they were “warriors” in combat. Girls may have to live with the stigma of having been sexually abused.
In addition, girls may suffer other consequences aside from sexually transmitted infections, such as chronic physical and mental disabilities or the need to look after babies conceived during their forced service. The stigma is not limited to girl-soldier mothers but extends to their children, who frequently experience the same kind of rejection as their young mothers.
Because participation by girls in conflict is often ignored, few programmes address their demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In many cases, shunned by their families and communities, they end up working as prostitutes or doing menial work when conflicts end. Their lack of education is another problem.
The practice of using girls as soldiers continues unabated. Because of their perceived role in society, women’s options are more limited after participating in armed conflicts, both in terms of marriage and work prospects.
It is necessary to develop policies to stop the use of girl soldiers and create rehabilitation and reintegration programs that specifically respond to their needs. It would be a costly enterprise but one that would allow girls to become the architects of their own future.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.