Legal proceedings against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo now taking place before the new International Criminal Court offer some hope that a serious kind of crime will be effectively punished and deterred.
Lubanga Dyilo led a Congolese militia group responsible for a wide range of criminal activities, among them the forced recruitment of children, including girls, as soldiers.
More and more girls are becoming 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.
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 percent of rape survivors had a sexually transmitted infection, including HIV/AIDS.
Why do some girls voluntarily become soldiers in spite of the obvious dangers? 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 organizing raids or spying missions.
A study by the Canadian human rights organization Rights and Democracy found that 30 percent 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 stigmatized 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 being 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 programs address their demobilization, 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 measures to stop the use of girl soldiers and create rehabilitation and reintegration programs that specifically respond to girl soldiers' needs. It would be a costly enterprise but one that would let girls become the architects of their own future.
Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant, writing on human rights issues.
© 2006 The Japan Times