Girl child soldiers are often thought of only as “sex slaves”, a term that glosses over the complex roles many play within armed groups and in some national armies. This thinking contributes to their subsequent invisibility in the demobilization processes - in fact, girls are frequently the most challenging child soldiers to rehabilitate.
The broad categorization of girl soldiers as victims of sexual abuse obscures the fact that they are often highly valued militarily. While sexual abuse is believed to be widespread, girls’ vulnerability may vary, as attitudes toward women differ extensively across militias: In Colombia, the Marxist-leaning groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) treated female soldiers as equal to males, while right-wing paramilitary groups were known to embrace gender stereotypes.
Some have argued that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes (DDR) are ill-equipped to address the needs of girls. DDR was designed for adult male combatants, and over the years has incorporated female combatants, followed by boy soldiers and then girls.
A January 2013 World Bank briefing, Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations, says: “The use of girls [by armed forces] has been confirmed in Colombia, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], East Timor, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and West Africa. There are some 12,500 in DRC. However, girls are generally less visible and up to now have hardly benefited from demobilization and reintegration programmes for child soldiers.”
“No one knows what has happened after a DDR process to the large majority of girls associated with the armed groups,” the briefing said.
About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child soldier DDR programmes dwindles to five percent or less.
Girls often conceal their association with armed groups, Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told IRIN. In traditional societies, enrolling in DDR could confirm a past that imperils their future: “In contexts of entrenched gender discrimination, and in situations where a girl’s ‘value’ is defined in terms of her purity and marriageability, the stigma attached to involvement in sexual activity, whether real or imputed, can result in exclusion and acute impoverishment,” he said.
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