Girl soldiers: the forgotten victims of war

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Girls make up almost half of the 300,000 children involved in wars, according to a report which says they are abducted, raped and often used as currency among fighters.

Girls make up almost half of the 300,000 children involved in wars, according to a report which says they are abducted, raped and often used as currency among fighters.

In the violent, desperate world of child soldiers, they are the most vulnerable, subjected to the worst abuse and with little chance of returning to something resembling normal life.

They are far more out of the reach of the international agencies than boy soldiers under 18, and are wary of joining rehabilitation schemes because of fear that it will expose what had happened to them and lead to further shunning by their home communities.

The report, Forgotten Casualties of War, by the charity Save the Children, highlights the plight of the girls, some as young as eight, who have been left without help after surviving the horrifying experience of war.

Research has shown girls are used extensively in combat in a wide range of international conflicts, in some cases by groups who have had the support of Britain and the United States. Among countries involved are Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the DRC, there are up to 12,500 girls in armed groups. In Sri Lanka, 43 per cent of the 51,000 children involved are girls.

But far fewer girls go through official reintegration. In the DRC, just 2 per cent of those going through Save the Children's demilitarisation are girls. In Sierra Leone, it is 4.2 per cent.

Mike Aaronson, the director general of the organisation, said: "When people picture conflict they think of men in bloody combat, but it's girls who are the horrifying and hidden face of war. Most girls who escape or leave an armed group do so on their own because formal programmes have not been designed with them in mind and can actually make matters worse."

One of the main problems is that returning boy soldiers are much more likely to be accepted than the girls. The boys can even boast about what they have done as "warriors" while the girls are ostracised as "immoral", "unclean" and "promiscuous" because they had been used sexually. There are also fears that fighters who took the girls away may return to reclaim them, and take revenge on the community.

Many rescued girls are driven from their villages and end up working as prostitutes in nearby towns. As well as sexual abuse and combat, female captives are often forced into arduous and dangerous tasks, surviving on less food and medical aid. Many suffer chronic illness and disability, and have to look after babies conceived after rape.

Former girl soldiers say they want their families and communities to understand it is not their fault they were forced into joining an armed group. They want medical help, support in bringing up babies, and access to education and jobs. Above all, they say, they do not want to be treated as pariahs.

Abducted, raped and abused

AIMERANCE, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Joined a guerrilla group after leaving home because her impoverished family could not support her.

"We suffered a lot. I had lice in my hair. We had to do all the cooking for lots and lots of people who were there. It was a lot of work. The men took us as their 'wives'. They treated us very badly. There were lots of little houses in the military camp. They put girls and the men in those houses. They didn't even consider that we were children. At any time they wanted, they came and had sex with us.

"I felt like I had no energy left within me. I felt so weak and feeble and as if I had lost all my intelligence. There were seven of us girls who were treated the same way. Now I feel bad here." She pointed to her stomach.

Aimerance eventually escaped and found her way to her home village. The rebels came looking for her twice, but she managed to evade them.

HAWA, SIERRA LEONE

Abducted when she was eight. " When the war came to our village it was five o'clock in the morning. There were about 20 men. We ran to the bush, but I got separated from my family. We were captured and taken to Sierra Leone. Everybody slept in the same room. At first I refused to be a wife, but I had to agree because there was nobody to give me food apart from the rebels. So I agreed to be one of the wives. I was a wife for eight months. I wasn't feeling well, because I had not started my period. I used to have pain in my abdomen. I escaped when there was an attack on a village. I walked for three days in the bush to get away."

Two years later Hawa was captured again. But she has returned home and is in a Save the Children project.

ZOE, LIBERIA

Forced to join guerrilla group when she was 11.

"They were beating people and they said to follow them. We followed them to Konia. We carried ammo to the front line. When they brought water we would wash clothes. We cooked for them, and we made hot water and bathed the wounded. One man took me. I didn't want to be his 'wife'. He forced me. He had three other wives my age. When other rebels came, all the soldiers were running away to Monrovia. We followed and passed our village. Mama was there."

Zoe went to a UN disarmament camp, and got the standard $300 for her arms. She is in a Save the Children programme, but she is afraid of being taken again by one captor. His brother has visited her.

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