The Complexities of Girls’ Involvement with Armed Forces and Groups

Posted on: October 10th, 2016 by

October 11th marks the International Day of the Girl Child, which the United Nations established in 2011 to “galvanize worldwide enthusiasm for goals to better girls’ lives, providing an opportunity for them to show leadership and reach their full potential.” It is a day when we, as global citizens, should come together to highlight, discuss, and take action to advance rights and opportunities for girls everywhere.  This day is also an opportunity to acknowledge the unique challenges facing girls throughout the world, such as the forced involvement of girls with armed forces and armed groups.


Last fall, the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago presented a speakers panel and international art exhibit, “Child Soldiers: Forced to Be Cruel,” that highlighted the trafficking and exploitation of children who serve as armed combatants.  The art exhibit showcased photographs that depicted child soldiers from around the world, while the panel featured national and local experts who discussed the trafficking and exploitation of child combatants and parallels with children recruited into gangs in Central America and the United States.  As was discussed at this event, the harm and overall trauma caused to any child combatant or gang-involved youth is staggering; however, the threat to girls is unique, particularly because of the perception that they are more obedient and easily manipulated than boys and at greater risk of sexual exploitation.


International law is clear about children’s role in armed conflict.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. has signed but not ratified (making it the only remaining nation not to have done so), prohibits children under the age of 15 from being forced or recruited to participate in a war or join the armed forces. The Convention’s Optional Protocol, which the U.S. has ratified, raises the age of direct participation and bans children’s compulsory recruitment to the age of 18.


The actual number of children involved with armed forces and groups is nearly impossible to determine with estimates ranging between 200,000 and 300,000.  Children – some as young as eight years old – are used as armed combatants, messengers, porters, cooks, and for sexual purposes by armed forces and armed groups.  Some are forcibly recruited or abducted; while others are driven to join because of abuse, poverty, ideology, or to seek revenge for violence enacted against them and their families.  About 40 percent of those are estimated to be female, though, again, the actual percentage is difficult to determine due to a lack of reporting and research on the issue.


Girls take on a variety of roles with armed forces and armed groups.  They may be directly involved in combat or be used in other ways.  Their “role” depends on a variety of factors, including their location and the armed force and/or group controlling them. For example, groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia treat girls similarly to boys and use them as armed combatants. Other groups have distinct roles for female children: Boko Haram and ISIS have historically used girls as domestic workers, “wives,” and sex slaves. However, recent reports suggest that girls in these groups are now being used to commit suicide bombings.


For all children involved with armed forces or armed groups, returning to society is challenging.  Many find it difficult to adapt to their new surroundings while coping with the trauma associated with their individual experience.  To ease their transition, some children receive “Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration” (DDR) services to assist them with reintegrating into communities and preparing for their future.  These services generally focus on the needs of boys engaged in direct combat and often lack the necessary gender-specific services and supports to address girls’ unique needs. Although 40 percent of child combatants are girls, reports suggest that many fewer receive DDR services, such as girl soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Moreover, sexually exploited female survivors especially need these supports and services because their families and communities may not welcome their return.


In order to counteract this increased stigma and help all child combatants, DDR programs need to acknowledge girls’ prevalence among the survivors and expand services accordingly. Each and every survivor should receive the gender-specific supports and services necessary to thrive when they return to society.  The purpose of the International Day of the Girl Child is to better the lives of all girls around the world. Let us not forget about the girls who are involved with armed forces and groups.


For more information about the involvement of children in armed forces and armed groups and ways to become involved with related advocacy, we encourage you to contact the following organizations:


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