Symbol image child soldier © Balla Gabor (shutterstock)
Around the world, rebels, militias and paramilitary groups recruit young girls as child soldiers. They are often sexually abused by male combatants. This also makes it difficult for them to return to their old lives.
Boys in military camouflage, armed with rifles, pistols or rocket launchers: Aid organizations and the media often use pictures like these to draw attention to the suffering of child soldiers. But many rebels and militias are recruiting more than just boys. "Girls are also abused by armed groups as scouts, fighters or sex slaves," says Thomas Berthold, child rights expert at terre des hommes.
How many female child soldiers there are worldwide is difficult to quantify. In its latest report on children in armed conflict, the United Nations counts a total of 413 forced recruitments of girls in ten countries in 2019, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Syria. However, there is a high number of unreported cases, because only few cases are recorded.
Aid organizations therefore ame much higher numbers. Up to 250.000 children serve as child soldiers worldwide, according to estimates by the German Alliance for Child Soldiers, to which ten aid organizations belong. Of those, about five to 20 percent are girls, depending on the region, says Ekkehard Forberg, an expert on children in armed conflict at World Vision Germany. In some countries, the percentage is as high as one-third.
Used as spies and medics
Armed groups and armed forces abuse girls for various tasks. In Yemen, they are used as spies and medics by Huthi rebels, according to the United Nations.
Girls often scout out enemy positions or act as messengers, says Berthold. In the process, armed groups are embracing traditional gender stereotypes. "In many countries, it is easier for girls to get past controls and pass through checkpoints because they are not perceived as a threat."
The Nigerian terrorist militia Boko Haram exploits this in a particularly brutal way. Between 2017 and 2019, it forced 146 girls and underage women to commit suicide attacks, according to UN figures. According to a study by the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, terrorists specifically recruit girls for suicide attacks because they are less likely to be checked and searched. This is also due to the fact that there are too few female security forces in Nigeria. In addition, women in Muslim northern Nigeria usually wear wide, long veils that conceal the explosives.
Exposed to multiple risks
Female child soldiers are exposed to multiple risks. In some cases, they perform similar tasks to boys and are also frequently sexually abused, says Unicef spokeswoman Christine Kahmann.
Girls are particularly vulnerable. According to the UN, there have been confirmed cases of sexual abuse among rebel groups in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali. In Syria, the terrorist group "Islamic State" has forcibly married off girls – mainly to foreign fighters.
Innocent Opwonya also reports sexual violence against child soldiers. At the age of ten, the 31-year-old Ugandan was abducted by the LRA militia and used as a child soldier.
In his unit, he says, there were girls who were abused by commanders and other soldiers as sex slaves. Opwonya says he also suffered psychological damage and trauma from his time as a child soldier. "But the pain that female child soldiers feel, I can't imagine it."
Difficult return to old life
The sexual violence also makes it difficult for former child soldiers to return to their old lives. Many girls are not only traumatized, but also stigmatized or excluded by their families or village communities, says Unicef spokeswoman Kahmann. It is important to support former child soldiers after their liberation, he said. In particular, they needed psychosocial support and educational opportunities so that they could later earn a living.
But there is often not enough money. "Many reintegration programs are underfunded," criticizes Kahmann. According to Forberg, more research is also needed on the situation and role of female child soldiers in armed groups. The topic is underexposed and there is too little data, says the World Vision expert.