Girls within armed groups have generally been neglected by scholars, governments and policymakers. This Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) paper traces the experiences of girls in armed conflict in Angola, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Uganda. It finds that girls in fighting forces are rendered invisible and marginalised during and after conflict, although they are fundamentally important to armed groups. They experience victimisation, perpetration and insecurity, but are also active agents and resisters.
Most of the literature has portrayed child soldiery as a male phenomenon, neglecting the role of girls in fighting forces. In recent conflicts in Africa, girls have comprised 30 to 40 percent of all child combatants. When girls within armed groups are discussed, there has been a tendency to portray them as silent victims. Rather than focusing solely on girls’ victimisation, it is essential to also consider their agency, resilience and skills.
Armed groups actively recruit girls, in many cases by abduction. They are subjected to violations of their human rights through killing, maiming, sexual violence, forced marriage and increased exposure to HIV/AIDS:
- Girls’ roles in fighting forces are frequently deemed peripheral by governments, policymakers and programme developers.
- Girls consistently make critical contributions to the functioning of fighting forces. Their multiple roles include domestic work, combat activities, and related military and support activities.
- Sexual violence and slavery are widespread, resulting in high levels of sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive health problems, and pregnancy.
- Safety is particularly challenging for girls as their vulnerability is increased by their gender, age and physical disadvantage.
- Girls are frequently discriminated against within formal disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) processes.
- Girls face post-conflict secondary victimisation such as social and economic marginalisationand ongoing threats to health and personal security.
Despite predominant portrayals of girls as victims, they have attempted to avoid, minimise or resist wartime abuses, patriarchal power structures, and the culture of violence surrounding them. An alternative perspective on girls in fighting forces is essential:
- Given their significant presence within fighting forces, girls’ experiences and perspectives should be considered as indispensable to analyses of war and political violence.
- Post-conflict policies and programmes should draw on girls’ intrinsic individual and collective agency.
- In the post-conflict environment substantial efforts are needed to provide: educational and employment opportunities; health care; child care; family reunification; counselling; and community sensitisation.
- Involving girls in decision-making is a formidable task, particularly in contexts where it challenges traditional social norms, power structures and gender relations.
- Special provisions should be made for female ex-combatants in post-conflict decision-making forums. Although there are challenges, denying them the right to participate risks a continuation of disparity, instability and violence.