"Using children in conflict is a heinous crime and destroys the very fabric of society," the American actress Angelina Jolie declared in The Hague at the trial of Thomas Lubanga. Lubanga is a Congolese militia leader accused of using children, both boys and girls, during the five-year civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
One of the tragic consequences of war is the forced participation of girls as soldiers. In Sudan, as well as in many other conflicts throughout the world, girls (sometimes as young as 13) are unwilling warriors or soldiers' sexual partners. It has been estimated that between 1990 and 2003, girls have been part of military and paramilitary groups in 55 countries and have participated in armed conflict in 38 of those countries. Presently, more than 120,000 girls are participating in armed conflicts worldwide.
"In war, these little soldiers work by killing and above all by dying. They make up half the victims of recent African wars," says Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan political writer talking about child soldiers. If the fate of both boys and girls is tragic, girl soldiers suffer additional indignities, an issue that remains to be solved.
Jasmine, a16 year-old young woman with a four month old baby explains the process of incorporating girls into armed groups in the DRC. In a testimony to Amnesty International she declared, "When the mayi-mayi (community-based militia groups in the DRC) attacked my village, we all ran away. In our flight, the soldiers captured all the girls, even the very young. Once with the soldiers, you were forced to marry one of the soldiers. Whether he was as old as your father or young, bad or nice, you had to accept. If you refused, they would kill you. This happened to one of my friends. They would slaughter people like chickens. They wouldn't even bury the bodies they slaughtered -they would even feed on their flesh. I even saw a girl who refused to be ‘married' being tortured."
Although in some cases girls voluntarily become soldiers, in most cases they are abducted and obliged to participate in combat operations, forced into sexual relations with commanders or fellow soldiers or required to perform other duties off the front lines, but equally as abusive, such as planting landmines, acting as spies or carrying heavy loads.. As a result of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, they may acquire sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, which are particularly frequent among men from both government forces and rebel groups.
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 their stay in the armed forces. Many among them were stigmatized because they had been raped and later had serious difficulties in trying to reintegrate into their communities and care for their babies - often unwanted - born of rape.
Why do some girls voluntarily become soldiers in spite of the obvious dangers involved? They may do it because of lack of other options for survival or for the perceived benefit it might provide to them - protection from ill treatment, to escape situations of domestic abuse or in search of food and clothing. Former girl soldiers who have escaped or been released have explained that the lack of opportunities in their future, such as access to education or means of earning a livelihood led them to join without knowing the harsh consequences it would entail. Other girls may do it to seek revenge against armed forces or groups which have attacked their families and communities or to gain a sense of power. In some cases, girls who became "wives" of commanders are sometimes in charge of organizing raids or spying missions on enemy forces.
Sexual violence is a major concern in Darfur, where children as young as six-years-old are raped by soldiers which witnesses identify as belonging to government forces, according to the United Nations. In addition, high incidence of rapes and sexual violence against children continues in Burundi, Central African Republic, Cote D'Ivoire, DRC, Haiti, Chad, Darfur, Uganda and other situations of concern.
Forced recruitment of children and sexual violence against them is not limited to Africa. Children have suffered similar fates in armed conflicts in Nepal, Burma, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. For example, in Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) recruited thousands of boys and girls into their ranks during the course of past two decades.
Beginning in the mid 2000's the TMVP, a breakaway faction of the LTTE, also increased its recruitment of children with the alleged complicity of certain elements of the Government Security Forces. Although the LTTE reduced its recruitment of children in 2008, according to UNICEF, during the hostilities in northern Sri Lanka in the first part of 2009, reports of LTTE recruitment of boys and girls resurfaced. Today, top UN officials are calling for an inquiry into atrocities committed by both sides during the 2009 fighting; this must include the use and recruitment of children.
Girls don't have the choice of freely leaving the groups with whom they are associated. Those who try to leave may be recaptured and punished. They thus have to deal with a double threat: recrimination and punishment from the armed group or discrimination and ostracism from the community if they do manage to return home. Some girls who return home pregnant or with a child are made to feel that they bring "dishonor" to the family.
Reintegration into society can be more difficult for girls than for boys, as they generally carry the stigma of having been sexually abused. In addition, girls may be left with some other consequences aside from sexually transmitted infections, such as chronic physical and mental disabilities or the need to look after babies conceived during forced service. The stigma is not limited to the child mothers but also extends to their children who frequently experience the same kind of rejection as their young mothers.
Because the participation of girls in conflict has been largely ignored, there are few programs that address their unique needs related to their demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration back into society. In many cases, shunned by their families and communities, they end up working as prostitutes or doing menial work when conflicts end. Girl soldiers, despite the disadvantages of having participated in war, in many cases are extremely resilient and have develop special skills that could be used in post-conflict settings for their re-integration into society. When provided the right opportunities, many of these girls have proven themselves to be productive and capable people who can ultimately contribute to pulling their societies out of the cycle of war.
The practice of using girls as soldiers continues unabated. Because of women's perceived role in society, after their participation in armed conflicts they have more limited options than boys, both in terms of marriage and work prospects. Frequently, former girl soldiers state that they want to receive education once they return home so they can become productive members of society. As Julia Freedson, Director of Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an organization working to end violations against children told me in New York, "When provided the right opportunities, many of these girls have proven themselves to be productive and capable people who can ultimately contribute to pulling their societies out of the cycle of war."
It is important to strengthen monitoring and reporting of forced participation of girls as soldiers, as well as other violations against them. This is needed in order to hold perpetrators accountable and to work towards release of children from fighting forces. Preventive measures are also important to eliminate abuse of girls, such as massive education campaigns calling attention to the phenomenon and its serious consequences. In addition, it is necessary to increase the number of and quality of rehabilitation and reintegration programs that specifically respond to former girl soldiers' needs. These are costly enterprises, but ones that will allow girls to become the framers of their own future.
César Chelala, an international public health consultant, is the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication "Adolescents' health in the Americas."