Guiding change: The Congolese NGOs helping former girl soldiers In our upcoming report from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), we explore the reintegration challenges facing former girl soldiers and put forward community-level solutions to help reverse the stigma suffered by many on their return. What The Girls Say is supplemented by a new Practical Guide, conceived with local NGO partners, the UN and Congolese government, focused on helping communities improve approaches to reintegration. It is often a difficult process. Social stigma, rejection by families and peers, alongside the serious impact of physical, sexual, and mental abuse suffered while in armed groups, means reintegrating girls back home brings many challenges. In DRC, where up to 40% of all child soldiers are girls, local NGOs are faced with these challenges on a regular basis and changing community attitudes towards returning child soldiers is far from easy. “Girls who leave armed groups are sometimes stigmatised because their families and members of their communities feel that they have lost value,” says Joachim Fikiri of North Kivu-based NGO Programme d’Appui à la Lutte Contre la Misère (PAMI). PAMI is one of the organisations Child Soldiers International has partnered with to help improve reintegration practices and promote the newly created Practical Guide. Among the 150 girls formerly associated with armed groups we interviewed during 2016, only around half had received any type of assistance once back home, varying from minimal to more substantial. The majority of girls interviewed had suffered sexual abuse within armed groups and sociocultural norms mean many people will shun them on their return because of such experiences. Fikiri says: “Our actions should be aimed at changing behaviour, getting parents and community members to adopt attitudes that promote the reintegration of girls.” “This is a process, because it relates to customs and practices that require time, individual and collective commitment.” Communities and families often distance themselves and discriminate against the girls because they have had sexual relations with fighters. This is one of the key reasons why girls formerly associated with armed groups can suffer worse treatment than boys on their return home. One girl told us: “I was called a prostitute; people would not allow their daughters to associate with me.” This stigmatisation and bullying can manifest itself in all areas of community life. Parents may refuse to pay for school on their return, or do not have the funds to do so, while for those who do re-enter the classroom, the likelihood of discrimination by students and teachers is high. “At school, others discriminate against me,” a 16-year-old former girl soldier told us. “They say they are afraid of me. Some don’t talk to me.” It is hoped though that dissemination of the new Practical Guide will help change such behaviours and attitudes. Focused on low-cost community-led measures, the guide promotes initiatives such as ‘Welcoming Ceremonies’ where religious or community leaders formally welcome girls back, celebrating their return, and thus engaging the wider community in accepting them. Religious leaders, village chiefs and school teachers assisting with reintegration, either through such ceremonies or involving girls in community activities, could have a major impact, especially given the social capital such individuals hold in their communities. The focus on tailored, community-centred initiatives is key. We believe having influential community figures on-board with projects and sharing information in a localised context will better help in breaking down sociocultural obstacles to reintegration. Fikiri says the new Practical Guide, illustrated and produced in local languages, ‘will improve the quality of interventions’ available to former girl soldiers. Another area where the guide can make a tangible difference is in education. Almost all the girls Child Soldiers International interviewed talked of their wish to return to school, they saw education as vital in restoring their perceived “lost value” in the eyes of peers and community members. The guide encourages organisations to come up with innovative and low-cost ways to offer education. Setting up free literacy and numeracy classes after school hours and encouraging volunteer teachers is one such example. Association de Jeunes pour le Développement Intégré-Kalundu (AJEDI-Ka), another local NGO supporting our work in eastern DRC based in South Kivu, agrees that access to education is crucial to reintegration. Director Simon Kangeta says: “Education of these girls is key to all developmental and reintegration actions that we can take.” The organisation conducts outreach sessions with teachers and students, to improve the treatment of returning girls. “We discuss with school officials the arrival of these girls and emphasise the principle of non-discrimination and the best interests of the child,” he adds. “Passing on the message of peace and non-discrimination in all educational meetings with teachers and student representatives is very important.” The role of schools, teachers and students in reintegrating former girl soldiers is outlined in the guide and will hopefully have a palpable impact across communities. Stigmatisation and community rejection are long-standing problems endured by DRC’s former girl soldiers, but it is hoped this new resource can help some of them move forward towards a brighter future. “AJEDI-Ka will build on the innovative ideas in the guide… We are very proud to have contributed to its creation,” Kangeta adds.