Democratic Republic of Congo: The voices of girl child soldiers (IRIN)

| July 3, 2017

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Multiple conflicts are simmering across the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, destroying struggling communities. Thousands of children are trapped in a web of violence, many serving on the front lines or labouring as porters, cooks, and spies. Up to 40% of child soldiers are girls.

In 2016, Child Soldiers International interviewed 150 girls formerly associated with armed groups in Democratic Republic of Congo. Their voices were published in a report titled, What the Girls Say. The report highlights the factors that draw these children into conflict, and what they need to escape it. Education is the biggest thread running through their stories.

Judith (not her real name) is 15 years old and a former child soldier. She says, “We heard that we could get money there [from the armed groups.] I went because I wanted to get enough money to go back to school.”

In this region, it is estimated that only 60% of girls complete primary school, compared to 80% of boys.

Of the 150 girls, two-thirds were abducted by armed groups, but one-third had joined “voluntarily.” Many girls from South and North Kivu and Haut-Uéle Provinces were pressed into conflict because of financial hardships at home.

School fees were a contributing factor in many girls’ decisions to join armed groups. Sixteen-year-old Sara explains, “I was pushed out of school because my parents could not pay. So instead of roaming aimlessly in town, it was better to go and help them in the bush.”

Other girls joined armed groups to avenge the death of a friend or family member, or because they were seeking protection. One girl explains: “The Mai-Mai were doing bad things all the time. They were looting and raping. It became so frightening and impossible to live at home. To protect ourselves, me and five others, three girls and two boys, decided to join them. We walked for two days.”

But the girls did not find either protection or money as child soldiers. Many experienced physical and sexual abuse, combat, hard labour, and constant fear of death. Many were exploited as “wives” for soldiers or performed domestic duties.

For returning girls, life with their families and members of their communities can bring more suffering. Stigmatization and rejection is common, often because the girls have had sexual relations outside of marriage, even though those relations were beyond their control.

As one girl explains, “Not two days goes by without neighbours making us feel we have known men. We are not allowed to associate with their daughters.”

As a result, some decide to rejoin the armed groups that abused them.

Child Soldiers International is working to understand the situation for returning girl soldiers, as well as the community changes needed to reintegrate them into their communities. School is high on the list, as many girls wish to continue their education.

This story is based on an article in IRIN, written by Sandra Olsson, the program manager of Child Soldiers International. The article is titled “Hear the voices of Congo’s girl child soldiers.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017/06/19/hear-voices-congo%E2%80%99s-girl-child-soldiers

Photo: International Rescue Committee / Flickr