Millions of children around the world will head back to school this week, but there are many others who will not and thousands who will be soldiers not students this September.

The prospect of getting ready for a new school year – preparing pencil cases, books and backpacks – will be a distant thought for countless children in many conflict-ridden countries.

In Democratic Republic of Congo there are still thousands of child soldiers. Some are abducted from their homes or schools, others join armed groups for revenge or protection while there are those who do so because of poverty, unable to pay for their school fees.

During our research in the country last we interviewed 150 former girl soldiers. Several told us they joined armed groups because they could no longer afford to pay for school.  one 15-year-old girl explained:

I was chased out of school all the time. We heard that we could get money there; I went because I wanted to get enough money to go back to school.

However, instead of earning money to go back to school, girls are sexually abused and exploited as fighters, cooks, spies and messengers. Serious physical and psychological abuse was often a daily occurrence.

For those who manage to escape or are freed, returning home often brings more pain and exclusion from the classroom. Our June report explains the stigma and rejection suffered by returning girl soldiers in DRC and describes how many girls, because of these problems, are not allowed or have no means to go back to school.

Through a series of education and numeracy and literacy programmes we are helping to change this. Together with our local partners and thanks to support from the public and others, we helped 55 girls return to school in 2016. One girl told us:

I can’t even believe that I’m back in school since I had given up hope and didn’t expect to be able to go back, now I give praise to God who sent help our way.

Another girl who joined a literacy & numeracy class said “I’m happy to learn how to read and write, this class has brought me much respect in my community and my family. I who was once called nothing, considered worthless, is now the person others go see and ask to read their letters for them.”

By the end of this month a further 122 former girl soldiers will be back in classrooms across Eastern DRC learning invaluable skills and finding their place in their communities once again.

Going to school is so much more than maths and PE, it helps these girls recover from terrible experiences of conflict and abuse, it offers a place to meet new friends for girls who often have been abandoned by their old ones, and it protects them from the risks of being an illiterate girl: early pregnancies, prostitution, or even being re-recruited by an armed group.

With your support, we hope to help even more girls get back to school so they too can prepare their books and backpacks for a new school year.

If you can give just £32 it could pay for six months’ education for a returning girl soldier in Eastern DRC. A £15 donation could buy a new uniform for one girl and £40 a school starter-kit complete with pens, notebooks, backpack and books.

Every child has the right to an education. Help us make it a reality. Donate today.