Female child combatants – 40 percent of all child soldiers – often go overlooked. Greater attention is warranted to the gender-specific roles and challenges they face from combat to rehabilitation.
By Cassandra Clifford for ISN Insights
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. UNICEF estimates that there are some 300,000 child soldiers actively fighting in at least 30 countries, with the majority 200,000 in Africa. Approximately 43 percent of all armed organizations in the world use child soldiers, 90 percent of whom see combat.
While, unfortunately, the use of child soldiers is not a new topic, one prominent element of this tragic story often goes untold: the role played by female child soldiers. According to Save the Children, some 40 percent of children involved in armed conflict, or 120,000 child soldiers, are girls. As with boys, the majority of girl soldiers are abducted or forcibly recruited into armed groups, which include government-backed paramilitaries, militias, self-defense forces, and government opposition or rebel factions that are divided along ideological, partisan, ethnic or religious lines.
The use of children, especially girls, in armed conflict is attractive to recruiters for several reasons. Children are generally more vulnerable and subservient, making them easier to manipulate than adults. Once recruited, child soldiers are often forced to kill or rape – often other children or members of their own family – as a method of initiation and control. Child soldiers are also much less expensive than their adult counterparts, as they are paid and fed less; they are also less likely to be suspected of being militants. In addition, it is easy to train children to use modern weapons; light, user-friendly weapons and small arms like the M-16 and AK-47 require little instruction and are easy for children to use and carry.
Clearly armed conflict compounds the difficulty of protecting all children, regardless of their sex; girls, many of whom are already living in patriarchal societies where they are marginalized socially and culturally and often experience sexual or physical abuse even in times of peace, face unique challenges. 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 these roles, where many are raped, used as sex slaves to service troops and forced into pseudo-marriages with their rebel commanders.
While gender-based violence can be directed against young girls and females from all cultures and socioeconomic classes, the poor and dispossessed are most readily targeted. Women and girls are targeted because they are generally more socially and economically vulnerable – 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 stay alive for another day or week. Rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and marriage, in addition to general violence and physical mutilation, are typical weapons employed against female child soldiers worldwide.
The use of female child soldiers also has significant public health implications. The HIV/AIDS pandemic and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are amplified by gender-based violence. In addition, high maternal and infant mortality rates and the abandonment of unwanted children also have a heavy long-term impact.
Gender-specific DDR challenges
The reintegration and rehabilitation of female child soldiers into society poses some unique challenges. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs (DDR) have been less successful with girl soldiers than with their male counterparts due to pre-existing gender inequalities in society, which often leaves these girls denounced by their families and communities, even labeled ‘unclean’ or ‘immoral’. This stigma can cost these girls any opportunity to reintegrate into society, earn a living, marry or have a family. This rejection can lead to more abuse, forced marriage, recruitment into sex trafficking and participation in further armed violence.
These psychological, cultural and social barriers to reintegration are compounded by a significant underfunding of DDR programs, which leaves many child soldiers out of the process – girls in particular. General underfunding combined with specific gender gaps in coverage means that female child soldiers often miss out on the DDR process. Part of the problem derives from how DDR is calculated. Much of a program’s success is based on the number of weapons that are decommissioned, but many girl soldiers do not have active weaponry, thereby leaving them uncounted.
The DDR numbers speak for themselves. 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 soldiers in Sierra Leone and two percent in the DRC received any benefits. And for girls who actually do receive assistance, the payout is paltry: often just a small amount of food, water, plastic sheeting for shelter, a ride home and possibly a small, one-time payment.
Substantial work is needed to foster the reintegration of girl soldiers into their home communities, including: mediation; psychological care; medical care, including treatment for STDs, reproductive health and related physical conditions such as fistulas; education and employment; and community education to address social and cultural gender inequalities. Additionally many girl soldiers often bear children that are the product of rapes perpetrated when they were combatants. These children of war then also become victims of abuse and ostracization. According to a three-part report, War Children of the World, tens of thousands of children have been born due to rape in conflict, with many women even forced to bear multiple pregnancies. Community education and support programs must be put into place for affected girls and their communities, including medical and psychological resources and support for young mothers and abandoned children.
An important step in the DDR process is to recognize the vital role that gender plays. The commonly conjured image of the female child soldier is that of a victim of gender-based violence, including rape and sexual captivity, ignoring that up to half have served as active combatants. Others who have been held in noncombat and military-support roles are more likely to be overlooked during the distribution of dwindling DDR compensation.
Response to the use of female child soldiers must be an integral part of gender-based violence programs, as well as the de-militarization of societies. Gender sensitivity and understanding must be enhanced, and prosecution of crimes committed against children in armed conflicts must be systematically enforced. However, until the underlying causes of conflict are addressed, boys and girls alike will continue to be exploited.
Cassandra Clifford is the founder and executive director of Bridge to Freedom Foundation, which works to enhance and improve the services and opportunities available to survivors of modern slavery, and the children’s rights writer for the Foreign Policy Association Blog. She holds a Master’s in International Relations from Dublin City University in Ireland. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)