How We Talk About Girl Soldiers: Lessons From Eastern Congo

Last year I was fortunate to be able to conduct research on the topic of child soldiery in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, supported by the University of Oxford. I met with former child soldiers and conducted interviews with leading NGOs in Goma, North Kivu province. My aim was to discern the truth behind core discourses surrounding the region and the impact that these discourses are having on initiatives to successfully reintegrate children from armed groups. My special focus was on girls in armed groups, examining the particular challenges that face this relatively understudied demographic.

Finding and interpreting meaningful data on girls in conflict is often challenging, and this proved to be no different in Goma. Information on girls was only available to me second hand, through the NGO personnel and former boy soldiers I was able to meet and interview. Nonetheless, I was able to gain valuable insights into girls’ experiences of conflict in eastern Congo and the obstacles to social reintegration they face. The following is an adapted extract from the conclusion to this research. It presents some of the findings I was able to make and argues the pressing need for humanitarian discourse to move away from the promotion of one-dimensional interpretations of conflict in Congo. 

CAAFAG – Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups

CRSV – Conflict Related Sexual Violence

CAJED – Concert d’Actions Pour Jeunes et Enfants Défavorisés

In drawing conclusions from my fieldwork it was clear that many of the principal discourses surrounding conflict in eastern Congo are in part supported by on the ground realities. The issue of natural resources did indeed factor frequently into explanations of ongoing violence, with most of my interviewees pointing to the destabilising role of Rwanda and Uganda in backing armed groups guilty of illegal minerals extraction. Warchild identified the concentration of coltan and copper mines in both North and South Kivu as a major factor differentiating conflict there with the predominantly ethnic violence predominant in Kasai province. Similarly, discussions with both Warchild and CAJED reiterated the high incidence of CRSV in the region – a discourse generally deemed synonymous with girls in armed groups. Research published by Warchild in 2018 explicitly shows the largely powerless status of female CAAFAGs and the horrific sexual abuse that many face. Their general appraisal of girls’ experiences suggests little in terms of empowerment and presented sexual violence as the overriding feature of time spent in armed groups. Accordingly, social stigmatisation of abuse survivors was presented as being the main barrier to girls successfully reintegrating into community.

However, my discussions with CAJED and Warchild offered several notable additions to these well-established discourses, with significant ramifications for our understanding of reintegration policy. A noteworthy caveat to the prevailing discourse on natural resources was the role, or lack thereof, of Congolese government in providing access to justice within the region. Warchild equated the lack of regional control exerted by Congolese central government with sustained instability – corroborating Vlassenroot’s study of local elites and monopolies of violence from the mid 2000s. Insecurity, of the type that flourishes within this environment deprived of judicial consequences, has seen a proliferation of bandit and military groups, as some Congolese perceive opportunities for greater security or enrichment in the taking up of arms. Quite simply, being part of an armed group enables a greater degree of protection than that afforded by the local authorities, whose influence is often severely curtailed away from towns and cities. Coupled with the lack of repercussion that might otherwise deter enlistment into armed units, girls can often ‘voluntarily’ join such groups with little fear of official sanction.

Therefore, girls’ recruitment partly derives from an amalgamation of impotent central government and entrepreneurial local self-enrichment – in addition to the instigating presence of exploitative external actors. Whilst recognising the intrinsic links between both explanations, this discursive model represents a more nuanced approach to understanding girls’ recruitment than the straightforward natural resources discourse. Whilst the natural resources discourse now appears to symbolise the dis-empowerment of Congo (with conflict and instability presented as imports from Rwanda and Uganda), a lack of internal control has enabled resource-driven conflict to become a type of regional protest; a backlash against endemic corruption and inadequate economic management. Thus, to join an armed group becomes a pragmatic decision, not a ‘culturally predestined’ response to external factors.

The traditional discourse surrounding CRSV and its impact on female CAAFAGs was also challenged by my research. At the core of the matter was the apparent inconsistency between a narrative of pervasive sexual abuse in armed groups and the clear evidence that shows girls rejoining these same groups post-reintegration. From my interviews I deduced two key reasons why girls reject reintegrated life and return to itinerant armed groups. First and foremost many girls appear to experience a rapid sense of disillusionment following transition back into civilian living. Core incentives to demobilise and reintegrate, namely: liberty, physical security and legitimate economic enrichment, all regularly fail to materialise upon return to civilian life. Girls can instead be left immediately defenseless and dis-empowered, lacking the means to defend themselves from bandits, their former group, or abuse within the home. Girls are often physically and sexually abused at home and have to conduct labour intensive work in order to support their family.

Such conditions, born of poverty, can appear in stark contrast to the protection (albeit abusive) on offer as a rebel. The DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world, with no real social welfare and a high risk of starvation due to the instability caused by fighting. Having a gun and the means to take what you need can prove the difference between poverty and relative prosperity, life or death. NGOs can only seek to paper over these cracks, with their own severely limited means largely unable to offer the type of comprehensive support that could eliminate incentives for girls re-enlistment. Furthermore, both Warchild and CAJED made clear that they are generally unable to keep track of children for long periods post-reintegration, meaning that not only do girls possess incentives to re-join armed groups, it is also feasible for them to do so unimpeded.

Building on these inadequacies of reintegration, my research showed how some girls may feel relatively privileged within their armed group, certainly in ways that they could not hope to emulate in civilian life. As well as being able to protect themselves from armed attack, domestic servitude and abuse, girls in armed groups can occasionally experience a warped increase in their social status. Within the orbit of the armed group girls may well be abused – quite horrifically in many instances – yet they remain distinct from their civilian counterparts. This sets them above other women and girls when the two groups come into contact. Warchild referenced accounts of female CAAFAGs gaining priority over other (often older) women when fetching water in community, a true disruption of societal norms. Girls who were ‘girlfriends’ or even ‘wives’ of commanders were respected out of fear by their civilian equivalents, earning a status usually reserved for elder members of society.

Former male CAAFAGs also provided anecdotal evidence of girls being made exempt from exhausting manual labour within the camp of their armed group – a facet of civilian life that most would never normally enjoy respite from. Other interviewee accounts referred to girls being appointed as the bodyguards of senior commanders, enjoying the privilege of dining with them at meal times, all whilst their male counterparts were made to eat at a distance. Therefore, in a highly perverse way (one undeniably offset by the sexual services that most girls are forced to offer in return), girls can achieve a degree of status within an armed group otherwise unimaginable to them in normal life. Where this is the case, the disincentive to join armed groups out of fear of sexual violence (and violence in general) is mitigated against misguided aspirations for self-empowerment and self-advancement.

Why do these slight discrepancies between discourse and reality matter you might ask? Fundamentally, their importance can be surmised in one word – oversimplification. The geographical homogenisation of the Congo as a whole, the dominance of the natural resources narrative, the dis-empowering of women and girls enshrined in the CRSV discourse and the continuing recourse to colonial tropes of central African barbarism, all serve to misrepresent the diverse and multifaceted realities of conflict in eastern Congo. The impact of this oversimplification has been the tendency, recognised by both organisations interviewed, for I/NGOs to follow a policy of “talking most loudly” about topics deemed likely to win for them substantial international attention and funding. This approach ignores significant long-term structural challenges, ensuring that already ‘invisible’ groups such as female CAAFAGs are misrepresented and that policy forms on the basis of these misrepresentations. This serves to exacerbate the very real challenges to girls’ reintegration posed by pervasive CRSV, lack of judicial accountability and the cycle of resource-driven conflict.

By seeing girls as one-dimensional, agency deprived victims within the discourses that monopolise discussion on the DRC, we are unable to accurately assess their potential for post-reintegration resilience and self-sufficiency. These discourses are real and have their place in creating better reintegration policy; however, we must broaden our understanding of girls’ experiences to serve their interests better. This includes developing a greater awareness of the legitimate reasons why girls may feel better off in an armed group. It includes looking beyond the horror stories of CRSV to the awful, yet reasoned choices girls are being forced to make between living in fear as a civilian and living under the ‘protection’ of rebel groups. The humanitarian community is increasingly aware of the need to not shy away from these complex and challenging questions. However, I believe it must go further in problematising the prevailing discourse surrounding the Congo, making appeals and fundraising in a manner that avoids soundbites and sensationalism, preferencing instead the holistic representation of difficult scenarios.

Sam Peters

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