Girls in Fighting Forces: Moving Beyonf Victimhood

Monday, January 1, 2007
Southern Africa

The issue of child soldiers has become an issue of global concern. More than 250 000 soldiers under the age of 18 are fighting in conflicts in over 40 countries around the world. While there is ample descriptive evidence of the conditions and factors underlying the rise of child soldiery in the developing world, most of the literature has portrayed this as a uniquely male phenomenon,
ultimately neglecting the experiences and perspectives of girls within fighting forces. Drawing upon the findings of three studies funded by CIDA's Child Protection Research Fund, this paper traces the perspectives and experiences of girls as victims, participants, and resisters of violence and armed conflict in Angola, Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Northern Uganda. The three studies collectively reveal four salient themes. First, whether in the heat of conflict or within post-war programming, girls are, for the most part, rendered invisible and marginalized. During conflict, the roles that they play are frequently deemed peripheral and insignificant by governments, national and international NGOs, policy makers, and program developers. In the aftermath of war,girls continue to be marginalized within the realms of education, economics, and are frequently discriminated against within formal disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes, as well as within the context of their families and communities. Second, in spite of this profound invisibility and marginalization, girls are fundamental to the war machine – their operational contributions are integral and critical to the overall functioning of armed groups. Third, girls in fighting forces contend with overwhelming experiences of victimization, perpetration, and insecurity. During conflict, girls are subjected to grave violations of their human rights through forced recruitment, killing, maiming, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, abduction, forced marriage, and increased exposure to HIV/AIDS. Many are also forced to participate in brutal acts of violence. In the aftermath of conflict, girls arguably bear a form of secondary victimization through socio-economic marginalization and exclusion, as well as the ongoing threats to their health and personal security.

Finally, the three studies demonstrate that girls in fighting forces are not simply silent victims, but active agents and resisters during armed conflict. Girls' made remarkable attempts to defend and protect themselves during situations of severe violence and insecurity, as well as efforts to bring about change for themselves and by themselves. Challenging the predominant portrayals of girls as emblematic victims, girls attempted to avoid, minimize, or resist wartime abuses, patriarchal power structures, and the culture of violence that surrounded them. In light of the research findings, an alternative approach with regard to the ways in which girls in fighting forces are perceived, represented, and conceptualized is essential. Rather than focusing solely on girls' vulnerability and victimization, it is essential to also direct our attention to their selfefficacy, resilience, and skills. Moreover, given their significant presence and multiple roles within fighting forces,

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Canadian International Development Agency, Girls In Fighting Forces: Moving Beyond Victimhood, 2007