Forgotten in the Shadows of War
Female child combatants are overlooked both in the media, as well as in the rehabilitation process. All too often, female child soldiers are also expected to perform sexual services for older male soldiers; in many countries of conflict, girls in armed forces are claimed by militia leaders as “wives.”
The use of child soldiers in armed conflict plagues our global society, as thousands of children continue to be recruited into armed conflict by both government forces and armed rebel groups in spite global efforts to combat the continued use of children. UNICEF estimates there are some 300,000 child soldiers actively fighting in at least 30 countries across the globe with the majority, an estimated 200,000 in Africa. According to PE Singers book, Children at War, he estimates that 43 percent of all armed organizations in the world use child soldiers, 90 percent of whom see combat.
Unfortunately the use of child soldiers is not a new topic; throughout time children have been used in military conflict. However there is on story in the plight of these children that is too often untold. While the conditions of armed conflict leave few, if anyone, in a conflict zone unaffected, however in the case of child soldiers is the struggle of young boys who are thrust into both the minds of most, and who are more likely to be seen in the media’s coverage.
Those children abducted and forcibly recruited to fight in rebel armies who are often lost in the shadows are that of the girl child soldier. According to Save the Children, in their 2005 report, Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict, of those children caught in the violent and deadly conflicts across the globe, some 40 percent, or 120,000 child soldiers are girls. As with boys, the majority of girl child soldiers are abducted or forcibly recruited into armed groups which include government-backed paramilitaries, militias, self-defense forces to anti-government opposition, and rebel factions who often based on ideological, partisan, ethnic or religious differences.
Undoubtedly armed conflict compounds all families and communities ability to protect children, regardless of their sex; however girls, many who are already living in patriarchal dominated societies where they are marginalized socially and culturally, as well as often sexually or physically abused, in times of peace. Girls often not only serve as active combatants, but also perform other military services, from intelligence and medical support to cleaning and cooking. Gender inequality follows girls into the ranks as many girls are raped, used as sex slaves to service the troops and, or are forced into pseudo marriages with their rebel commanders.
Why use child soldiers, especially girls? Children, especially girls are preferred, as they are vulnerable, more subservient, and thus easy to manipulate. Once recruited the child soldiers are often forced kill as a way to break them, they are often forced to kill, and sometimes rape, other children or even members of their own family. Child soldiers are also much cheaper than their adult counterparts as they are unpaid and fed less, thus are quick to access and cheap to use, as well as more disposable. As modern arms are light and easy to use, training children to use and fire weapons accurately is significantly easier.
Examples of the Use and Abuse of Girl Child Soldiers
In Africa, it estimated that half the ranks of progovernment paramilitaries and rebel soldiers are recruited, or abducted, child soldiers, of which approximately half of which are girls, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRC), at the Second International Policy Conference on the African Child: Violence Against Girls in Africa (2006). In Uganda, for example, tens of thousands of children have been abducted from their villages during the night for induction into rebel guerrilla armies, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRC). The IRC documents that more than 30,000 children have been forced into slavery as child soldiers during decades-long civil leaving some 80 percent of the population displaced. Displacement leaves girls at risk for routine raping, abuse, or forced to be a sex slaves to rebel commanders or troops. Despite the official end of the 1998–2003 civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) conflict and displacement internally and into neighboring countries have continued to allow the abuse and abduction of girls as child soldiers and sex slaves to continue to fester, as some 30,000 children have been in active combat and thousands of girls, as 12,500, are forced to forces in support and sexual roles (Save the Children: Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict). Sudan’s Darfur region had approximately 17,000 children served in the forces of the government, armed militias, and opposition groups; some 2,500 to 5,000 child soldiers served in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) alone despite the fact that the insurgent group claimed to have demobilized 16,000 child fighters, including an estimated 600 girls, between 2001 and 2004. In Liberia during the civil war between 1989 and 1997, an estimated 21,000 children were part of armed groups, and some 5,000 girls were actively fighting in the war. Conflict resumed in 2000, and by the end of 2003, the number of girl soldiers had increased to 8,500 as violence raged in neighboring countries, despite a peace agreement in August 2003, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
Female Child Soldiers for the Tamil Tigers
The situation is also critical for girl soldiers across Asia. In South and Southeast Asia, girls joined armed groups often to flee a life of domestic servitude, forced marriage, and other forms of gender-based abuse. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist insurgency has had, some 43 percent or 21,500 of the 51,000 child soldiers involved in the conflict are girls, according to Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict. Over the last decade in the Philippines, girls are often used to recruit as soldiers in the various guerrilla insurgencies have been active for decades in the country. As well girls have been forced into marriages with combatants in the conflicts in Afghanistan. The Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly recruited some 2,000–4,000 children between 1996 and 2004 via abducting them from schools and subjecting them to political indoctrination, arms training, and then deployed in combat zones or used in other support roles; a number of which were girl who in many cases reported sexual abuse according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
Female Child Soldier in Columbia
Guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Central and Latin America have used child soldiers, including girls, primarily from peasant and indigenous groups by force or coercion since the 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s in Peru the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrilla group had a rate of girls in the ranks, some forcibly recruited; and the various guerrilla and revolutionary groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua included girl soldiers. As many of these conflicts end girls child soldiers have been lured into youth gangs, many of which have sought to escape poverty, conflict, and/or reprisals by state security forces and paramilitaries. Such as in Colombia, were approximately 14,000 child soldiers recruited by paramilitary and armed opposition groups, such as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Army) which had up to 50 percent of all recruits being women and girls. In 2001 a United Nations official condemned the use of more than 2,500 girl soldiers, primarily in the FARC, and their rape and sexual abuse by commanders, many of which were often forced to use contraceptives and have abortions (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers).
Increased Challenges to Disarm and Rehabilitate Girl Child Soldiers
Gender-based violence can be directed against young girls and females from all cultures and socioeconomic classes—although the poor and dispossessed are more readily targeted. Women and young female children are targeted because they are the most vulnerable and powerless generally—especially in underdeveloped and conflict-ridden countries. In desperate situations of survival, female child soldiers may be forced to barter their sexual services to avoid greater abuse and mutilation or simply to remain alive for another day or week. Indeed the International Rescue Committee and United Nations Human Rights organizations report the use of rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and “marriage,” and general violence and mutilation as typical weapons employed against female child soldiers worldwide. The use of child soldiers is a clear violation of child rights and a war crime, however they are also a public health threat, as the HIV/AIDS pandemic and STDs are amplified by gender-based violence. High maternal and infant mortality rates and the abandonment of unwanted children also have a heavy long-term impact.
The abuse against girl child soldiers is horrendous; however it also creates unique challenges in both the prosecution of crimes and the reintegrating of girls into their home communities. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs (DDR) have been met with decreased success with girl child soldiers over that of their male counter parts, due to societies preexisting gender inequality, which often leaves them denounced by their families and communities, which often label them; “unclean” or “immoral”. Therefore the stigma can cost the girl any opportunity to earn a living, marry, and may cause her to be banished from her family and community. This rejection can lead to more abuse, forced marriages, recruitment or trafficked into the sex, or re-recruitment by armed groups. Additionally the psychological, cultural, and social barriers are compounded by a significant underfunding of DDR programs. For example in Sierra Leone alone, more than 20,000 former child soldiers were entitled to a DDR package, however only 4.2 percent of girl child soldiers and 2 percent in the DRC received any benefits (Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict). Often girl child solders seeking DDR have been only given meager assistance such as a small amount of food, water, plastic sheeting for shelter, a ride home, and possibly a small one-time payment.
What Needs to be Done?
Substantial work is needed to foster the reintegration of girl child soldiers back into their home communities, including: mediation; physiological care; medical care and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive health, and related physical conditions such as fistula; education and employment; and community education to address socio and cultural gender inequality issues. Additionally many girl child soldiers are often bare the children due to the rapes they encounter while combatants and thus when they return their children are the victims of secondary victims of abuse and ostracized, and even labeled as ‘unwanted’. According to a three part report, War Children of the World, tens of thousands of children have been born due to rape in conflict. Many women may be forced to bear multiple pregnancies. Community education and support programs must be put into place for girls returning from conflict and the communities affected, as well as to place both the needed medical and physiological assistance and resources, as well as support for young mothers and abandoned children.
An important step in the process is to recognize the vital role that gender and gender discrimination has in the process. The image of girl soldiers has emphasized gender-based violence, including rape and sexual captivity, while ignoring the vital fact that in a number of conflicts a significant number, up to half, of girl child soldiers have been active combatants. Other girl child soldiers have been held in noncombat and military-support roles, which as the funding dwindles places them the most unlikely to receive DDR. Another key and vital roll to the DDR process and ending the use of all child soldiers is to actively including children in the process.
The use of girls as child soldiers is equally complex, widespread, as it is long-term to solve. Therefore the response must be an integral part of gender-based violence programs, as well as the de-militarization of societies. To end gender-based violence and the exploitation of girl child soldiers must not only include gender sensitivity and understanding, but also include the sustainable enforcement and prosecution for such crimes. However the biggest battle in the fight for the girl child soldier is that until these conflicts are brought to an end the process of disarmament and demobilization will continue to be hindered.