DAKAR, Nov 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Girls in conflict-ravaged eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are joining armed groups because they cannot afford to go to school, while former girl soldiers struggle to return to class amid stigma from their communities, a charity said on Monday.

Many girls in the region join militia groups to obtain food and money, to seek protection against violence, or because their families cannot afford to pay their school fees, according to a report by Britain-based Child Soldiers International.

Eastern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups that prey on locals and exploit mineral reserves. Millions died between 1996 and 2003 as a regional conflict caused hunger and disease.

Around a third of all children in armed groups in the country are estimated to be girls, who are often married off to militants and are vulnerable to abuse and rape, activists say.

"It is deeply shocking that, because their families cannot afford to pay school fees, some girls see joining an armed group as their only option, and decide to throw themselves in harm's way," said Isabelle Guitard, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International.

While primary education is free and compulsory by law, most schools in Congo charge fees for books and uniforms, Child Soldiers International said.

"Despite the horrific abuse the girls go through while with armed groups, it is the rejection from their families and communities which distresses many of them the most," Guitard told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from London.

While civil society groups have had some success in getting boys out of armed groups and into reintegration programmes, this shame and fear of rejection back home has kept many girls in the bush, according to Child Soldiers International's report.

"If we leave the group, we're going to be targeted ... so many girls accept and continue to live with their bush husband," said one of the 150 former girl soldiers interviewed by Child Soldiers International.

Most of these girls said going to school was the best way to regain acceptance from their communities, and that it helped them to deal with trauma suffered while with the armed groups.

Child Soldiers International said it was working with local partners to help former girl soldiers go back to school, provide catch-up sessions and literacy classes for those who have never been educated or who are too old to start.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

This is an article by Kieran Guilbert which appears on Thomson Reuters Foundation website.