Red Hand Day, also known as International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, is held annually on February 12th to draw attention to the issue and encourage the end of the use of children for military purposes. The campaign creates a call to action for world leaders and countries requesting the prohibition of the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to protect children from participating in armed conflict.
Thousands of children worldwide have served, and are still serving, as soldiers in armed conflict. While the image of a young boy may come to mind when thinking of child soldiers, a significant portion are girls. Girls comprise up to 40% of child soldiers; however, many are not recognized as such because they do not fit the typical profile and thus do not receive the necessary educational, vocational, and medical services to reintegrate into the communities where they once lived.
Many countries have made strides in ending the use of children for military purposes by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (“OPAC”). Both contain language prohibiting the use of child soldiers and call for the rehabilitation and reintegration of children who are associated with armed forces and groups. Much work, however, still needs to be done.
Children and young people who are associated with armed forces and groups often face significant trauma as a result of harmful experiences related to their abduction, involvement with and exposure to violence, and the constant threat of harm. Moreover, they may not be accepted and purposefully reintegrated into communities after they end their involvement because they are not trusted or forgiven for their involvement.
Reintegration services are essential for transitioning children back into communities. Unfortunately, they may not be available or offered to girls who are no longer involved with armed forces or groups. Many are forcefully recruited, abducted, or manipulated into non-combat roles and forced to work as domestic slaves and perform duties such as cooking, cleaning, and carrying equipment. Others are forced into sexual slavery or taken as “wives.” Receiving communities may not encourage or offer these girls supports and services even after they experience significant harm. Moreover, even when reintegration services are provided, the services are often “short term, not adequately resourced and not tailored to a girls’ specific needs.”
Girls who were associated with armed forces and groups face additional obstacles to their reintegration into their previous community. They may be stigmatized, rejected, or ostracized because of the sexual violence perpetrated against them. This stigma reduces a girl’s status within the village and may compromise her access to education and employment and negatively impact familial and future relationships. Girls may hide the fact that they were a soldier and not seek out services because of the stigma and related hardships. In Sierra Leone, the stigma of sexual violence was so significant that “… it [was] easier for a boy to be accepted after amputating the hands of villagers than it [was] for a girl to be accepted after being the victim of rape.”
Any girl associated with armed forces and groups should be recognized and provided with necessary services to support their reintegration into society. Although many countries have made strides in ending the use of child soldiers by signing and ratifying the CRC and OPAC, they must do more and provide gender-appropriate services that address the additional issues and obstacles that girl soldiers face. These services should include, but not be limited to, community sensitization on sexual violence, access to educational and vocational supports, and medical care focusing on sexual trauma. Girl soldiers are entitled to reintegration services and those services should be tailored to fit their needs.
If you want to learn more about child soldiers and organizations, please click on the links below.