Reporting on the use of child soldiers tends to focus on the plight of young boys forced to join the ranks of adult male fighters. Meanwhile, the experience of girls associated with armed forces and armed groups is largely overlooked. Yet girls are no less affected than boys by the experience of directly participating in or witnessing armed conflict. In fact, girls have unique needs and vulnerabilities that must be prioritized in any efforts to prevent, release and reintegrate child soldiers.
Available information paints an alarming picture of the widespread recruitment and use of girls in armed conflicts across the globe, including those in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Nearly 75 per cent of conflicts today involve recruitment of children, and well over half of these have included girls. The data also tell us that the longer a conflict continues, the more likely girls are to be recruited and exploited by armed actors.
In many cases, armed forces and armed groups ‘recruit’ girls using different tactics than they do for boys. Often, they are simply abducted. A recent study of 37 active armed forces and groups conducted by Plan international and UNICEF found that half had abducted girls often targeting them because of their perceived submissiveness. Child marriage is another particularly heinous tool favored by some parties to conflict in which girls are forced to marry adult male fighters and to live under their control, often subjected to daily sexual violence.
But it would be a mistake to assume that all girls have no agency in their association with armed actors. Girls sometimes seek out an association with an armed force or group for protection, to generate income for themselves and their families, to avenge the loss of loved ones in conflict, or to follow other family members or partners in combat. Some armed groups promote imagery of strong female warriors, encouraging girls to take up arms and join their ranks. Girls may ultimately decide that joining an armed force or group is the best path forward when their options in life are severely limited.
The diversity in girls’ association is matched by the varied roles they play as members.
Girls may be active participants in conflict. In Africa, for example, nearly 40 per cent of girls recruited by armed forces and groups directly engage in hostilities. Some groups in the Middle East have female-only units trained in tactical weapons use.
Armed groups in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin are known to use abducted girls in suicide attacks with improvised explosive devices. Between 2014 and 2016, girls were used in a shocking 75 per cent of these attacks.
Girls also frequently act in support roles that cover a broad range of activities including transport, translation, telecommunications, medical assistance, cooking, cleaning, and childcare.
Girls associated with armed forces and armed groups often experience sexual abuse. Our research has found that girls recruited through abduction are more likely to be victimized, and that almost 70 per cent of the armed forces and groups analyzed were responsible for the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls. In a UNICEF analysis for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 29 per cent of girls released from armed forces and groups between 2018 and 2020 reported being subjected to rape, sexual slavery or forced marriage during their association. As sexual violence is under-reported in all contexts it is likely the actual figures are even higher than those captured in official statistics.
Even though we know girls are being used, relatively few are ever formally identified. This means they are far less likely than boys to be released through formal Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, and far more likely to separate informally because of the serious stigma that often results from their association with armed actors. Some girls, for example, conceive children during their time of association, often as a result of rape. When they return to their communities with one or more of their own children, they may be subjected to devastating stigma and ostracization, even from their own families.
Without the benefit of support for reintegration into society, girls are at risk of falling into poverty, unable to access education and skills training, or suffering further stigma, exploitation and abuse.
We must do a better job for these girls. This starts with governments, humanitarian and human rights actors putting real muscle and resources into learning where they are and understanding their specific motivations, needs and vulnerabilities. This means strengthening prevention, release and reintegration programs tailored for girls and the diversity of their experiences and providing them with sustained support as they exit armed groups.
It also means more systematically linking programmes for release and reintegration with gender-based violence response services, including specialised medical care and psychosocial support. There must also be a concerted effort to address the risk factors behind the recruitment of girls, including at the individual, family and community levels, and to give girls options so that they have the possibilities they deserve.
As we mark the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, and 25 years since Graca Machel’s groundbreaking report on the impact of conflicts on children, it is time for girls associated with armed forces and groups to be seen, and to receive the help they need.