Congo?s missing girl soldiers

Date: January 1, 1970
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The recent election and appointment of a new government in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a landmark event in the country?s post-war future. However, away from the capital Kinshasa, and away from the media focus, the war has not yet ended for thousands of Congolese children ? especially former girl soldiers.

Research by Amnesty International in the DRC estimates that at least 11 000 child soldiers are unaccounted for, or still with armed groups. Of these, the majority of girls who joined or were forced to join militias, remain “missing” – and are likely to remain so in the years to come.
This is nothing new. The same situation has repeated across Africa’s wars for more than a decade. In both Sierra Leone and Liberia, girls and young women formed a substantial part of the fighting forces. Yet, demobilisation programmes instituted by governments and international bodies immediately discard the female fighters.
Significantly, Amnesty’s research comes two years after the launch of a national campaign to reintegrate Congo’s child soldiers into civilian life. During the civil war – and especially in the volatile east of the country – child soldiers made up about forty percent of the fighting forces. Of these, girls made up forty percent of all child soldiers recruited and coerced.
In the wider picture of reconstruction campaigns across the DRC, both girls and boys are receiving little or no support in their bid to return to civilian life and their families. Researchers believe that some warlords are holding back children in case they want to return to war.
While the situation is bad for all child soldiers, there is a particular horror to the situation of young female combatants. Girls receive little attention when the fighting stops; with almost no attention or care about how their recruitment took place or what happened to them during their time in the armed groups.
War amplifies violence towards women. Beyond the looting of resources and continent-wide politics of the Congolese war, sexual violence was the feature of the rebellion in the east.  In villages, women and girls were repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted by various militia.
Coercion and kidnapping of girls into joining rebel ranks was common practice, but even those who joined willingly (or because it was a means of survival) found that female is the defining factor between the troops serving the various militia.
Sexual violence often accompanied their kidnapping or recruitment, as well as induction. Even as a valuable part of the wartime fighting and support staff, sexual violence from within their own ranks was often a mainstay of their fighting days.
In Africa, armed groups have found a way to dignify institutionalised, repeated rape of female fighters and abductees: they are “married” off to their commanders. Policy and news reports regularly refer to these sexual slaves as “wives” or “bush wives” – thereby neatly using words to sanctify savagery. Cases are documented of girls being tortured and severely assaulted if they resist being “married” – or more accurately, being given to their rapists.
However, while female combatants are regularly subjected to a particular kind of gendered oppression and violence, they are deemed even more valueless when the war is over. Then, they are forgotten and treated as if they were never there in the first place.
Despite the integral role women play in Africa’s wars, for policy makers, wars are still “men’s business.”  Post-war reconstructive policies do not take into account the particular needs of females.  
Classified as “dependents” of male fighters (or not as fighters at all), female combatants are not entitled to any of the training, psychological, social and particularly financial support for demobilised male fighters. Training and job opportunities are almost exclusively for men – focussing, for example, on teaching skills like carpentry, car mechanics and being an electrician.
This means that former female combatants are making “choices” about their post-war futures, in the context of almost complete choice-lessness. Many have children born in captivity. Demobilisation programmes ignore female combatants as mothers, caregivers, and providers.
When the guns falls silent, in the absence of the financial and social incentives given to boys and men, they often have little choice but to stay with their commanders in order to feed themselves and their children.
Wider society does little to help former female combatants, too. The shame of being party of the fighting forces – and most probably being a rape survivor – is often too overwhelming when they return home. Very often ostracised and rejected by their families and communities – and often coming home with a child born to a militia fighter – one of the few “choices” left to them is to return to their rapist-partners.
The disappearance of African girls at the end of combat is becoming a regular feature in Africa’s recent civil wars, where they remain the ones forgotten, uncounted and unaccounted for.
What’s currently happening to former girl combatants in the DRC is almost a carbon copy of what happened when the war ended in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where demobilisation and re-integration efforts of the government and international organisations not only marginalised women combatants, but in effect pretended they never existed.
As had happened in Liberia, then Sierra Leone, and now in the DRC, the invisibility of female combatants have led to their impoverishment, isolation, disappearance and being forced to stay with the men who’ve held them in sexual slavery. The need for African women’s and feminist groups to demand the equal treatment of women in war and peace has never been more urgent.
Karen Williams is a South African journalist working in Africa and Asia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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