Lyndsay Hockin considers how to meet the particular needs of girls released from armed forces and gangs.
When we think of ‘child soldiers,’ the image that leaps to our minds is usually young teenage boys, toting automatic weapons, dressed in a mix-match of loose fitting and faded fatigues. We think of boys as young as 5 years old, dashing through the bush as spies, collecting reconnaissance and conveying this back to their older commanders and compatriots. We forget that girls can be part of armed groups too. If we think of girls at all, we limit our imagery to cooking, cleaning and other domestic duties of an armed group’s home base. As Child Protection experts who have studied children associated with armed forces and groups, we realise, that in our efforts to understand ‘child soldiers’ we have often only established a firm collective understanding and means to respond to the experience for boys. It’s a blind spot.
Why do we miss out on understanding the experience of child recruitment and use for girls? There is no easy answer. In part, this gap can be attributed to traditional gender stereotypes and perceptions, but it is also a reflection of the ‘state of play’ of power and patriarchy that still defines most corners of our world. We learn from former child soldiers, now adult, sharing their stories. Though not unique to the space of understanding child soldiers, men are more likely to have access to public spaces, and to academia - the capacity and permission to travel abroad, the confidence to speak publicly, to ability handover parenting and caregiver responsibilities. This is changing, as we make more and more concerted efforts to create pathways for female participation, but in large part to date, our knowledge of child soldiers has admittedly been informed by more male experiences than female. This speaks to importance of continuing to push for gender-responsive approaches to informational collection, storytelling, learning and reflecting to find solutions to end and prevent child recruitment and use for all children.
We do know that girls can be as vulnerable to forced recruitment as boys. World Vision completed a 5 country research study to better understand the coercive continuum on which boys and girls may appear to exercise some agency in joining an armed group as well. In Colombia, Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq and South Sudan, both girls and boys became child soldiers for a wide range of reasons: presence of conflict and normalization of violence, access to basic needs for survival or family assistance, lack of opportunities including education, vengeance, and pressure from peers, family or community members. Each of these reasons motivated both girls and boys.
But there is a gendered dimension to reasons for recruitment. In Colombia and DRC, girls were targeted for forced recruitment for use in hostilities specifically because as females they would be less suspected of carrying out armed operations or criminal acts. In Iraq, CAR and South Sudan, girls were more at risk of recruitment in order to become wives of armed leaders, while in some parts of DRC, virgin girls were recruited specifically as part of fetish beliefs, used as part of the armed groups’ purification rituals thought to provide protection to combatants.
A key area for further research is to consider whether as a result of these factors, girls are a greater risk of forced recruitment compared to boys, particularly in contexts where a girl’s daily reality is against a backdrop of unequal access, participation, agency and empowerment. Countries with the highest rates of reported child recruitment and use, for example Somalia, also happen to be defined by a significant power imbalance between males and females, where women and girls of all ages face a devastatingly high likelihood of experiencing all forms of sexual or gender-based violence, and may have limited means to exercise agency over their own bodies and decisions in their daily lives.
Just as the circumstance of becoming associated with an armed force or group is driven by a gender dimension, so too is the experience unique for girls and boys as they exit and seek to reintegrate back into society. The majority of girls will have experienced vicious and repeated forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a child soldier. Girls are also subjected to other forms of GBV - forced marriage, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery and trafficking, and gendered physical or emotional abuse. While sexual violence is tactic used to dehumanize boys in armed conflict, UN data indicates the perpetration of SGBV is more pervasive against girls.
As result, girls seeking to reintegrate are more likely to experience a ‘double trauma’ – the horrors of the experience from participating in conflict, and the lasting impact of SGBV. While boys can be stigmatized or feared by family or community members for their alleged past acts as they seek to reintegrate, it can be equally likely that boys’ involvement in hostilities is seen as the ‘norm’ or their natural role as ‘young men’, particularly where the armed force or group that a boy joined in perceived to have offered physical protection to his family or community. Girls’ association with armed groups, particularly where girls participated in active combat, can significantly challenge social norms in a way that can be unacceptable, even where a girl may have similarly participated on the ‘winning’ side. Challenging gender stereotypes as a child associated with an armed group creates a different set of social barriers for girls to reintegrate. This is further complicated by layers of significant stigma that survivors of SGBV experience, and that can be attached as a result of a forced marriage to armed actor or as an adolescent single mother.
The risk for recidivism, or re-associating with an armed force or group, is also different and potentially greater for girls. This can vary widely by context but could represent a critical ‘missing piece’ to understanding how to end and prevent recruitment and use for girls. In some contexts where religious or cultural interpretations severely limit agency and opportunities for females, an experience with an armed group can offer a girl a leadership role she may never otherwise have access to, though for boys such roles would be their norm. Where an armed group may have a loose command and control structure, a girl may be accorded agency, freedom of movement and some degree of independence.
As the we wrestle with how to achieve gender equality and female empowerment globally, we are forced to confront a difficult reality. For some girls, participation in armed conflict may more quickly and viscerally contribute to an outcome of empowerment for them than any other effort to shift gender norms progressively over time. Permanently ending their association with an armed group can, in some specific contexts, mean a ‘step back’ in agency, freedom, perceptions of power and respect, and feelings of empowerment for girls. Where for boys addressing basic needs, re-entering education and accessing future employment are among the most important aspects to mitigating recidivism, for girls it can require all of this plus the need to significantly advance gender equality – a tall and difficult order, and a factor that can be forgotten in recidivism prevention strategies.
How can we respond better to girls’ unique needs as they exit armed forces or groups? We can be the most responsive to the needs of girls when we ensure that our assessments are gender-sensitive, using gender and age disaggregated data and analysis as a starting point. While there is much more to do, child reintegration for girls is much more successful when child protection services, mental health and psychosocial support, and GBV response services, including comprehensive case management designed for child survivors intersect and service providers are capacitated from both the perspective of ‘child protection’ and 'GBV response’ protocols. Critically, ensuring the availability of mental health and psychosocial support adapted to gender and age, and that these services can be provided by male and female professionals is an essential best practice. We can strengthen gender-responsive approaches, listening more to girls to understand what accessing education means to them and the barriers they feel they face, and avoiding ‘cookie cutter’ approaches to care plans and vocational or skills training that inadvertently reinforce stereotypes or limit female participation.
We do however need to better confront and respond to the specific realities for adolescent girls. In my former work, I have experienced heart-breaking moments where a 40 year old commander demand to forcibly take back his 15 year old ‘wife’ as she is his ‘property’, or where a 17 year old girl struggled to balance a return to school with caring for her 2 children, born out of rape during her time associated with an armed group. The realities of this type of lasting trauma, the power and potentially permanent pull that can be created from forced marriage, the incredible responsibility of adolescent motherhood – all of this is, for the most part unique to a girl’s experience, but devastatingly common. This challenge has required World Vision child reintegration programming to adapt to meet what are in many ways ‘adult’ burdens within a framework intended for responding to children, in a way that balances the need to address these realities while attempting to support these girls to recover some version of healthy, adolescent development.
What can we do to better understand and meet the needs of girls associated with armed forces or groups?
Across operational and academic research, including World Vision’s own country studies, the gender dimensions of child recruitment and use, and the specific implications for girls, is one of the most consistently highlighted as an aspect where we need to learn more. We know that things are different – they are harder, more complex, and can confound our assumptions and stereotypes.
A resounding recommendation is to conduct operational research to specifically understand how girls become involved in armed conflict, what their experiences are during this time, how they may exit from their involvement, and what support they need to recover and reintegrate, mitigating the risk of recidivism. This will necessarily involve talking more to girls of all ages, as well as former female child soldiers. It may also require researchers and practitioners to review their methodologies for information collection and re-examine opportunities to more intentionally consult with women and girls, overcoming implicit or unintentional barriers women and adolescent girls face with respect to participation in research or consultations.
There is also a need to continue to advance the intersection between professional and programmatic approaches to child protection and GBV prevention and response. The call for greater coordination of the Sexual Violence in Conflict and Children and Armed Conflict agendas in the UN Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019) reflects a start from the policy side. The emergence of Communities of Practice for Child Survivors of SGBV also represents a promising means to review technical standards and strengthen coordination of the protocols, services and systems that girls surviving both involvement in armed conflict and SGBV require. Gender analysis that is age and disability-specific must be a standard starting point for any child reintegration programming to better capture the unique needs of girls. More though must be done to understand, anticipate, plan for and adapt to the realities that adolescent girls exiting armed forces or groups.
Finally, ending and preventing girls’ recruitment and use, and supporting girls towards recovery will require a more significant investment of resources. According to the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action’s analysis of total global humanitarian assistance, only 0.4% of funding goes to child protection in crisis settings, the second least funded sector in humanitarian action. From the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Service, the least funded sector is GBV prevention and response. Support that girls need for successful reintegration, child protection, and GBV response cuts across these both of these sectors, and yet represents the lowest contribution from a funding perspective.
On the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, we reflect on continuing harm of the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. It is also an opportunity to start to change our own narrative, breaking down ‘children’ to consider the unique experiences and realities for boys and girls, and how when we think of ‘children’ we may inadvertently only be considering the reality for boys. The more we can do to listen and learn from women and girls to understand their specific experiences as child soldiers, and adapt accordingly, the greater likelihood of truly ending and preventing recruitment and use for all children.
Lyndsay Hockin is World Vision's UN Representative for Humanitarian Affairs & Senior Policy Advisor