Efforts to improve support for returning girl soldiers in Democratic Republic of Congo accelerated in February as Child Soldiers International’s National Action Group held its first workshops in the country.

Made up of government representatives and local organisations in Eastern DRC, the National Action Group will work to improve acceptance of girls formerly associated with armed groups.

The group will conduct outreach work in areas where child recruitment is prevalent and engage community and religious leaders to discuss the root causes of the stigmatisation suffered by returning girls, and to find local solutions.

The group has a crucial role in making the girls’ voices heard and in countering the stark lack of support received by returning girls.

MONUSCO, the UN mission in DRC, says 30% to 40% of all children recruited there are girls.

However, of 8,546 released from armed groups between 2009 and 2015, only 7% were girls. The failure to adequately support or even identify returning girls is abundantly clear.

Girls are exploited as porters, cooks, spies and messengers in armed groups. Some are used as fighters and most suffer serious sexual and physical abuse. Of the 150 returned girls we interviewed, a majority had been subjected to sexual abuse.

This comment from one girl reflects the dire situation: “Sometimes I didn’t even know the name of the man who abused me at night,” the 16-year-old said. “I wanted to escape but saw what they did to those who tried… I was too scared.”

These experiences often result in the girls who do escape being stigmatised once they are back home.  

Discrimination shows itself in many forms.

Girls are banished from their homes when parents, often pressured by neighbours, feel ashamed of their daughters who they consider ‘unmarriable’ because of abuse suffered by their captors. Others are shunned by community members and shut out from community life, while insults from children and former friends are common.

“Every girl from the bush, the community points to her and says: ‘Watch out: HIV,’” one girl told us.

The National Action Group includes government figures from North and South Kivu, Child Soldiers International’s partner organisations in the region – AJEDI-Ka and PAMI – and other civil society groups.

They will operate in both regions and bring together child protection actors, community elders and religious leaders but also members of the police and military for workshops to encourage dialogue and together with the participants examine the core of the problem and help put an end to the discrimination.

Child Soldiers International is supporting workshops in several towns during 2018. Using our newly released Practical Guide - designed to help communities address the specific needs of girls – these workshops will help communities find solutions to improve the treatment of returning girls.  

The guide focuses mainly on low-cost measures to help girls leave armed groups in larger numbers, reverse the discrimination suffered when they come home and support them to find a valued role in their communities. 

The predominant message from the girls we interviewed was their desire to feel valued again in the eyes of their family and friends, to be seen and treated just like other girls their age – and not as “child soldiers” or “spoiled goods”.

Solutions outlined in the guide range from countering exclusion by including girls in community activities - asking a priest to involve them in church proceedings, for example - to training trusted community members in basic listening skills so that girls can freely share their experiences.

These initiatives are supplemented by Child Soldiers International’s education projects.

Schooling was identified by the girls as one of the most effective ways to restore their value and since 2016, the organisation has helped 177 girls formerly associated with armed groups return to education. In addition, some girls, now literate, are putting their new skills into practice in joint agriculture programmes on nearby small-holdings.

On International Women’s Day (8 March 2018), we want to raise global awareness of the difficulties faced by girls who have suffered adult exploitation in DRC and show that by working together we can make progress and ensure that returning girls are welcomed by family and friends and met with empathy and patience.

In many countries – and until recently in Europe – the ‘value’ of a woman still depends to a large extent on her ability to get married and provide a dowry for her family. By understanding this, and by finding ways to demonstrate the true potential of these girls – we can help them be accepted and rebuild their lives.

Child Soldiers International stands in solidarity with the women’s struggle worldwide, and in particular, with girls associated with armed groups in DRC.