More than 38,000 children have taken part in Liberia's war as fighters, porters, and slaves throughout the country's bloody conflict. But stories of the former child soldiers of Charles Taylor's armies almost always focus on the boys. What has been largely unrecognized is that a significant number of these soldiers were girls.
A recent Newsweek piece by Clair MacDougall highlights the largely-ignored stories of these former female fighters who now, as women, are having trouble reintegrating into society. Many are deemed "unmarriagable" because of their pasts. They are shunned and impoverished.
The physical and psychological effects of the girls who once fought alongside their brothers and neighbors, often engaging in the same horrific tasks, are highlighted in this recent coverage which incorporates interviews with many of the female former child soldiers. Knowing their stories is extremely important to understanding the potential for real post-conflict reconstruction.
Women are considered a crucial part of Liberia's economic and political reconstruction. Efforts to rebuild a peaceful and stable Liberia have enjoyed a fair amount of international development aid and attention, and women have been the focus, for example, of Goldman Sachs' famous 10,000 Women Initiative promoting female entrepreneurship in Liberia to boost the economy and encourage more gender equality in society. Liberia has gained particular attention in the gender and development realm because of the much-lauded election of the country's female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the country steadily earn millions of dollars of development money.
But the specific issues affecting former child soldiers have rarely been addressed by such initiatives, which often focus on war-torn families affected by husbands who fought in the war, and ignore the fact that women have also been through these experiences.
One woman interviewed said, "I'm the man for the family ... I'm the man because I fought." She noticed that the government and Western aid agencies almost exclusively focused on helping men re-enter society after fighting. "When you said 'child soldiers,'" she explained, "everybody looked at the boys."
Studies show that the mental health effects of bloody wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been remarkably painful, given the brutality of the atrocities, making post-conflict reconstruction extremely difficult. One account states that the atrocities in Liberia included “intentional hacking off of limbs, carving the initials of rebel factions into victims' skin, slaughtering pregnant women to bet on the gender of the unborn child, and use of young girls as human sacrifices."
Women who lived through these experiences not only suffer from various forms of post-traumatic disorders, but also, it turns out, struggle to find work and establish families. "They are generally not regarded as potential candidates for marriage, and most employers are reluctant to hire them,” one aid worker explained. “They live in ghettos and hide their past.”
These rare interviews and accounts coming to light long after the conflict has ended are a reminder that Liberia's former girl soldiers need their stories to be told. As women are becoming a new focus in international development initiatives in Liberia and beyond, attention is shifting to their roles not only as wives and mothers, but also as citizens and entrepreneurs. Their experiences as former soldiers should not be overlooked, and efforts to address this facet of the conflict's ugly history would benefit from increased attention.