Young girls are being recruited into armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo in alarming numbers, according to international charity Child Soldiers International (CSI). Disturbingly, many girls aren't being abducted or forced to join the group, but are choosing to join as a result of desperate poverty.
Child Soldiers International estimates that up to a third of girls they surveyed, currently embedded with armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, joined of their own volition. They warn—in comments first reported by French broadcasters RFI—that numerous armed militias throughout the eastern DRC are targeting girl soldiers, in addition to boys.
The DRC is one of the poorest and most insecure countries in the world, despite its vast natural resources. The Mai-Mai (a name referring to an assortment of local militias) are prolific recruiters of child soldiers, despite international efforts to stop the practice. They're aided in their efforts by the DRC's history of armed conflicts, which leaves many young Congolese without an education or a viable way to make a living.
According to one 2010 paper, the continued use of child soldiers is facilitated by "a belief in mystical powers possessed by [children]," "precarious socio-economic conditions," "an absence of rule of law," and a belief that local militias contribute to community self-defence. However, international attention until now has tended to focus on the young boys co-opted into these groups.
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"About a third of the girls we met had chosen to join an armed group," explains Isabelle Guitard of Child Soldiers International. She uses the word "choose" loosely: "In reality, [joining a militia] could have been their only option to escape a life of abject poverty, or protect themselves from constant and terrifying attacks on their villages."
Shockingly, almost half of girls who'd chosen to join the Mai Mai did so because they were unable to pay their school fees. Others joined in the mistaken belief the groups would protect them and their families. "One girl in Uvira, South Kivu, told us, 'There were many groups that would come and attack, pillage, and rape. We would have to flee all the time. So after a while I had to go to the Mai Mai for my protection.'"
Guitard's team interviewed 150 former girl soldiers in the conflict-riven eastern DRC in the first months of 2016. On average, the girls were aged just 15 years old. What they'd witnessed was unimaginable.
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"Most of the girls we talked to were used for sexual and domestic purposes (as 'wives,' cooks and cleaners). They were repeatedly raped, often by different men, and sometimes drugged," she explains. Girls in North Kivu told Child Soldiers International that they "were treated like toys," and when describing their experiences, they would say, "Life in the bush was only suffering."
"Suffering took many forms, and depended on the armed group," Guitard tells Broadly. "It was both physical and psychological, as the girls often lacked food, had to sleep in the open air, were made to carry heavy loads, and were repeatedly raped—often by different men." Some girls recruited into Mai Mai groups, or abducted by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, were also used as combatants.
The vast majority of girls bitterly regretted their decision, but returning to society is difficult: Former female child soldiers are often met with suspicion, hostility, and shame. "Coming home is not easy," Guitard explains. "A major source of distress came from the stigmatization, if not outright rejection, they face when they finally come home—because, in their words, 'They had known men [carnally] in the bush.'"
While few accurate figures exist on the number of girls co-opted by armed groups in the DRC (whether forcibly or not), Guitard tells me it's believed that as many as 40 percent of all child soldiers are female. These girls are the invisible faces of armed conflict in the DRC—and while some escape, many more remain.
"All the girls we interviewed when they escaped or otherwise left the armed group," Guitard adds, "said they left 'many girls' behind."