According to UNICEF, thousands of boys and girls are recruited as soldiers across the world. While much focus has been placed on male child soldiers, though female soldiers often play important roles in armed groups and conflict, they are often neglected.
Many armed groups, including many fighting in civil conflicts and both government and insurgent forces, fill their ranks with children, recruiting and even kidnapping and trafficking them. Those children most vulnerable — those who face poverty, displacement, or other security, economic, or social pressures — are often targeted by recruiters. Females, like their male counterparts, are put into a variety of roles; they serve as cooks, porters, and even combatants with front-line duties. Yet, these young girls in particular are also often recruited for forced marriage or other sexual purposes, adding to the immense violence and trauma that child soldiers more generally face and experience.
Girl child soldiers face distinct challenge. After recruitment, they often continue to face the gender inequality, discrimination, and gender-based violence they experienced before violent conflict. These girl soldiers are often especially subject to systematic sexual violence, and rape. Indeed, according to a report on girl soldiers by Dyan Mazurana and Susan McKay, during the civil war in Mozambique, girls had been treated as sexual property, and distributed as “rewards” for other soldiers. Likewise, during the civil war in Sierra Leone, captive young girls were viewed as commodities, while Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) gave girls to commanders as “wives”, and forced the girls to aid in abductions. Girls have seen similar subjection in Cambodia, Bosnia, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kosovo, Honduras, Rwanda, Sudan, and East Timor, and the challenges and violence girl soldiers have faced continue today.
Not only are rape, sexual slavery, and sexual violence common weapons of warfare against girl soldiers, thus perpetuating gender inequality and gender-based violence, but girl and women soldiers also face greater risk of death during pregnancy and childbirth, with health risks amplified in conflict-ridden environments. Moreover, girl soldiers may face unique psychological trauma, with the loss of family, dignity, and virginity. Lastly, girl soldiers are often forgotten in the rehabilitation and reintegration processes after conflicts, abandoned, and even at times denounced by their own communities and societies due to stigma. Experiencing the compounding effects of being both female and children, girl soldiers are commonly left out and misunderstood.
In 2015, on the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, or Red Hand Day, the U.N. called for “urgent action to end grave violations against children including their recruitment by armed groups”, and emphasized that four in ten child soldiers are girls. On this year’s Red Hand Day, the E.U. High Representative and the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict issued a joint statement supporting efforts to prevent child recruitment, as well as to support both boy and girl soldiers in reintegration into society after armed conflict. The international community has slowly started to recognize the importance of better understanding and supporting female child soldiers. However, more needs to be done.
Increased scholarship on girl soldiers should be encouraged to understand their unique challenges and better address their needs. Education and community support programs, along with psychological and medical support programs, should continue to be developed and added into reintegration processes for these girls after they return home from armed conflict, in order to prevent them from returning to arms due to community ostracization. The international community must also enforce prosecution of those who commit crimes against children, including girls, in situations of armed conflict.
U.N. programs and peacekeeping missions can help empower women, and the international community can make efforts to prevent gender-based and sexual violence in societies after conflicts, supporting girls’ role in communities through civil society. Girl soldiers have the right to education, the right to life without sexual abuse and violence, and the right to build their own futures.