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  • Writer's pictureEcumenical Women

Girl, Interrupted

“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.”

Jasmine, 16, the DRC

By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA, and co-founder of the Blog Café Thawra

On this UN International Day to End Violence Against Women, I would like to raise an important and rather invisible subject: the issue of the Girl Soldier.

International Criminal Law considers the enrolment of children as warriors as a war crime in many texts, including the Rome Statute of 1998 establishing the International Criminal Court (Article 8)2)b)xxvi)):

For the purpose of this Statute, “war crimes” means: (…)

(b) Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts (…)

(xxvi) Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities.

The Rome Statute also classifies enlisting children as a war crime in the setting of a non international conflict, at article 8)2)e)vi). This is of enormous importance as contemporary wars tend to be internal rather than international, and foreseeing these cases can prevent war criminals to get away with a “Would the international community kindly don’t interfere with the my country’s issues please? I’m busy killing, raping and enrolling people here”. The ICC is thus currently trying Democratic Republic of the Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga for conscripting, enlisting, and using child soldiers.

It is reported that girls make up for 1/10 to 1/3 of the child soldiers in armed conflicts, depending on the country. The issue of the girl soldier is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention within the International Community; yet it should, as it crystallises all types of violence women and girls have to bear in times of peace.

For there is nothing better than a good crisis to get a society flaws out in the open.

Why, and how, do girls become soldiers? There could be many reasons to that, including that the girl voluntarily joins the militias. Girls are also forced into waging war, whether physically or emotionally, by blackmailing them: “If you do not come and fight for us, oh well, we’ll just torture and kill your family”. Indeed, girls are central to the war machine: they act as sex slaves for the soldiers, fight like boys and men, and perform all kinds of chores. No wonder they’re regularly abducted.

However, let us dig a teensy bit deeper into the so-called “voluntary” joining of girls in armed conflicts. Studies have shown that girl soldiers joined militias to escape domestic violence or abuse, but also in an attempt as self-protection: some girls declared preferring to go and fight rather than wait for militiamen to come and rape or kill them. Summing up, girls tend to join national violence to escape from the domestic violence they have to bear, and to shield themselves from the seemingly inevitable abuse they will face eventually.

Just because they were born a girl.

Needless to say, girl soldiers will be abused by their brothers in arms or by their supervisors, sometimes getting pregnant, which can assure them the eternal rejection of their community and family, sometimes getting HIV/AIDS or other STDs, sometimes both.

I have to say, I had a hard time digesting the extraordinary amount of violence, stigma, abuse and torture that girl soldiers have to face: they are enrolled because of violence (whatever its form), used (in all the acceptations of the word) and rendered afterwards to civil life, full of hatred, to bear the enormous stigma and contempt of their society, having lost all sense of self. Their reinsertion into civil life is even more difficult than for their male counterparts, because of the women and girls’ status in the society: in most societies, raped and abused women are synonymous of disgrace and dishonour, and a girl who has been known not only to be a fighter but also to carry a militiaman’s child is to be ostracized. That the girl is a victim doesn’t even come into the equation with this reasoning.

Civil society organisations and the international community set up rehabilitation centres, providing the children with education, counselling and health services. Sadly, the advocacy for rehabilitating girl soldiers will be long and painful, so set in stone is the prejudice towards these girls. However, it is also important to note the strength and resilience of the former girl soldiers, who, even though they have been maimed, tortured, abused, raped and ostracized, carry on living, day by day, nurturing their hopes and licking their wounds.

Every day should be the International Day to End Violence Against Women Day.

For more information and testimonies:

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