A hidden army of more than 120,000 girls is working or fighting with armed groups around the world, and international programs to help them often fail or make things worse, Save the Children says in a report published Monday.
Girls as young as 8 are abducted and forced to live with armed groups. Some carry weapons; others serve as porters, cleaners and cooks. Almost all are forced to be sex slaves or "wives" of commanders, Save the Children says in the report, titled "Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict."
While the horror of child soldiers is well known, the report says the focus of international concern is usually on boys. But out of roughly 300,000 children estimated to be living with armed groups, about 40 percent are girls.
Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs are usually initiated after a conflict by the United Nations and the World Bank, but the report says they often ignore the special problems girls face. Their homecoming is often as depressing as their departure. They are ostracized by their family and community because of their "immoral" experiences. As a result, they are trapped between recrimination from the armed group if they leave and from the community if they return home.
A DDR program's success is often measured by the number of weapons collected rather than the successful reintegration of former combatants. Children's programs are "invariably underfunded."
In Sierra Leone, more than 20,000 children were entitled to a DDR package, either money for a school uniform and three years of fees or a skills-training course. At first, it was given to children who had spent one year with an armed group. As money dried up, it went to those with two years' experience, and finally only to children who could show they knew how to dismantle and fire a gun.
In interviews, girls told Save the Children they were put off by the military orientation of the DDR process. It highlighted the fact that they had been in an armed group and increased the danger of being stigmatized by their community.
Often the assistance packages are nothing more than food, water, oil, plastic sheeting for shelter and a lift home or somewhere on the way home. Sometimes the package consists of a one-off payment, which commanders often demand the girls give to them.
Girls returning home may be seen as violent, unruly and dirty or as promiscuous troublemakers. With no other means of supporting themselves, many are forced to turn to sex work, making them even more stigmatized and isolated.
The report says girls identified a number of ways the international community could help better: through mediation work with the community and family to explain they were coerced into joining the armed group; by creating networks to provide emotional support; and with help in starting new livelihoods.
The report describes the six-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the deadliest war on the planet since the Second World War, and the worst in Africa. From 1998 to 2004, approximately 3.8 million people died as a result of it. All the parties involved in the conflict recruited, abducted and used child soldiers. Children made up approximately 40 percent of some armed groups in the eastern DRC in 2003, with at least 30,000 taking an active part in combat. Thousands more children, mostly girls, were attached to the armed groups to provide sexual and other services.