[14 November 2016] – Staying in school protects girls from recruitment and other grave violations by armed groups, says Child Soldiers International in a new report published today. Research conducted by the organisation in 2016 shows that many girls who joined armed groups in eastern DRC did so because they had been forced to drop out of school.

About a third of the 150 girls interviewed during the research had voluntarily joined an armed group, and almost half of them had joined because they could no longer pay their school fees.

“It is deeply shocking to see 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,”  says Isabelle Guitard, Director of Programmes at Child Soldiers International.

All of the girls interviewed during the research, regardless of whether they had chosen to join or been forcefully recruited, said that they were subsequently subjected to rape, ill-treatment and forced labour; they bitterly regretted their decision.

In its report, “’If I Could Go to School…’ Education as a tool to prevent the recruitment of girls and assist with their recovery and reintegration in Democratic Republic of Congo”, Child Soldiers International gives a voice to the girls who went through this horrific experience, managed to come out of the armed groups, and are now desperate to go back to school. It seeks to assist child protection agencies to integrate education programming into the prevention of child recruitment.

Child Soldiers International is itself working with Congolese NGOs AJEDI-Ka (South Kivu) and PAMI (North Kivu) to support the return to education of former girl soldiers and other vulnerable girls, as a way to prevent their recruitment by armed groups.

“Education should be free, and more awareness-raising needs to be done about children’s rights and the dangers of military life,” says Isabelle Guitard.

The report also takes a close look at the role of education in supporting the reintegration of former girl soldiers into civilian life. Whilst there has been a degree of success in getting boys out of armed groups and into reintegration programmes, shame and fear of rejection has kept many girls in the bush. Social stigma remains a driving factor in preventing them from demobilising from armed groups.

For most girls interviewed, participation at school was seen as the best way to regain acceptance from their communities. The girls said that school attendance was important, not only to receive an academic education, but also as a means to erase their past, and form a positive identity, especially in the eyes of their community.

“If we could go to school, the community would be nicer to us, we would get some consideration that would help a lot.” (Former girl soldier interviewed by Child Soldiers International)

Research shows that going to school, receiving an education and engaging in the social aspect of being with peers helps mitigate the effect of war and trauma on children.

Providing access to education is crucial if we are to better protect children from recruitment (and re-recruitment) and help former child soldiers rebuild their lives. This education must be available for all children within affected communities.

Background

In January-February 2016, Child Soldiers International’s research team spent six weeks in eastern DRC (South Kivu, North Kivu and Haut Uélé provinces) and interviewed 150 girls about the circumstances of their recruitment, their experience within the armed groups, and the difficulties they are facing upon returning to their families and communities. The team also consulted UN and NGO actors in eastern DRC, and interviewed members of community-based Child Protection Networks; child reintegration actors; and local government officials to understand the support in place for returning girls, and the impact of existing support programmes on their lives.

Together with our Congolese partners, we are supporting former girl soldiers back into education, through formal education, or catch-up classes to help them get to the required level. We are organising literacy classes for girls who have never been to school or who are too old to start. These classes help both former girl soldiers and other vulnerable girls in their communities. Donations made to our appeal for former girl soldiers in DRC will go directly towards providing classes for these girls.

For more information: Contact: Isabelle Guitard, Director of Programmes, Child Soldiers International IGuitard@child-soldiers.org