The stigma that keeps girl soldiers in misery

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Save the Children has done a great service by calling attention to the plight of girls who make up almost half the world's estimated 300,000 child soldiers. As the charity makes clear in its latest report, while the world has become aware of the horrors involved in militias enlisting boys in their squalid conflicts, precious little attention has been spent on the equal number of girls dragooned into the same armed struggles.

Save the Children has done a great service by calling attention to the plight of girls who make up almost half the world's estimated 300,000 child soldiers. As the charity makes clear in its latest report, while the world has become aware of the horrors involved in militias enlisting boys in their squalid conflicts, precious little attention has been spent on the equal number of girls dragooned into the same armed struggles.

The problem is that most of the girls slip through the nets of the charities, international agencies and government bodies involved in rehabilitating child fighters and giving them a fresh start. This is not because the agencies don't care, or consciously discriminate against girls. The problem is that the girls themselves shy away from contact with the rehabilitation projects because they are terrified of being identified as former fighters.

Much of this is due to to massive disparities in gender status. For a boy, the status of ex-warrior is often something of a plus. For a girl, it can be the kiss of death. Sexually compromised in the eyes of their families, they risk being driven out of their homes and banished to the outermost margins of society. As the report makes clear, villagers also shun these girls out of a fear that the returning girl fighters may draw the attention of the militias that formerly employed them and so give them a foothold in their communities.

In lifting the lid on this problem, Save the Children has done an important job. Coming up with solutions will be much harder. What non-governmental organisations and agencies can do immediately is to make greater efforts to establish the exact number of girl fighters. Secondly, the agencies need to concentrate on tackling the issue of the deeply rooted hostility to returning girl fighters. While these girls remain objects of fear and loathing in their own communities, few are going to enlist for rehabilitation projects, however attractive they appear. So the cycle of misery continues, as many girls end up dying prematurely or spending lives in enforced prostitution.

Agencies and governments working in the field need to take note of what the girls themselves have said about their plight. Asked what kind of help they needed, many have said that what they need is for figures respected in their communities to intercede for them, and explain to their relatives that they were coerced into fighting. They said they need help also with gaining community acceptance for the children that many have given birth to as a result of rape. The agencies and charities must, in other words, work with the grain of the societies from which these girls come. By listening to the girl fighters themselves, we will get some ideas about how to proceed.

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