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Female Child Soldiers I
Napísal: Kristýna FOUKALOVÁ   
Sobota, 06.júla 2013 - 13:35 hod.


Vážení čitatelia, Project ARES Vám tentokrát prináša príspevok venujúci sa problematike tzv. detských vojakov. Článok kladie dôraz na postavenie dievčat v radoch detských vojakov, poukazuje na dôvody ich využívania v armádach, analyzuje efektivitu medzinárodných dokumentov, ktoré boli prijaté s cieľom zabrániť najímaniu detských vojakov (najmä dievčat) a poskytnúť im ochranu. Zároveň článok poukazuje na problémové aspekty pri aplikácii jednotlivých ustanovení týchto dokumentov. Článok bol pôvodne zverejnený na internetovom portáli časopisu Global Politics 9. marca 2013. Príspevok bol poskytnutý Projectu ARES na základe súhlasu redakcie Global Politics i autorky. Príspevok je uverejnený v anglickom jazyku.

Both children and women belong among social groups that should receive particular protection and attention also, perhaps especially, in times of war or armed conflicts in general. This is an undisputed issue about which there prevails common consensus even in the international area, demonstrated for example by the four Geneva Conventions concluded after the Second World War. That is why one could think that female child soldiers – a combination of the two mentioned especially vulnerable groups – are protected in a double way which should be sufficient and no bigger problems should occur in this regard – at least no bigger than the ones connected with boy child soldiers, for example. Yet, it is an extreme and cruel paradox that such a contention would be far away from being true. In contrast, when one hears about child soldiers a picture of a little boy with a gun(1) usually crosses their mind and similarly, when one thinks about protection (or more broadly, issues) of women in armed conflicts they imagine an adult woman, not a little girl. Girls have been simply lost somewhere between the categories of “child soldiers” and “women/female”(2), at least until very recently. Fortunately, nowadays still more and more people have been reminding us about stories and lives of female (or girl) child soldiers, which is also the intention of this paper. This contribution tries to analyse the current legal situation of female child soldiers, problems which they face and, at least in some cases, also come with possible solutions. Therefore it is divided in three main parts: in the first one some facts about lives of these girls are introduced, in the second one an overview of existing law applicable to them follows, and the third part contains the analysis itself, i.e. it confronts the “law in books” (or “law in treaties”), including recent case – law with the reality and it points out at least some of the deficits of the current law. The article is ended with final conclusions and possible recommendations.


Facts – girls participating in armed conflicts

The image of armed conflicts has changed quite dramatically in recent decades, comparing to the one we know from the middle ages or even from the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. One of the characteristics of today’s conflicts is that they are usually of internal scale which inter alia results in fading away the distinctions between the combatants and the non-combatants (Machel 1996: para. 22 et seq.) Another difference consists in wider involvement of children in these conflicts, both in roles of traditional combatants with guns seeking for the enemy to attack them and in some auxiliary roles. The (possible) growing participation of children is, a bit paradoxically, enabled by scientific progress and developments which have brought also guns so lightweight and still cheap so that even small children – sometimes almost smaller than their guns – are able to carry and operate it (Machel 1996: para. 27). However, it is not possible to give an exact number of children involved in armed conflicts, neither on the side of government armed forces nor on the side of non-state armed groups; the estimates talk about tens of thousands of children (Coalition to Stop to Use of Child Soldiers 2008b: p. 10).(3) For a clearer idea, Amnesty International mentions the number of 250,000 (Amnesty International). The number is also changing all the time, as new conflicts arise and others are gradually settled down. According to the Child Soldiers International (formerly known as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers), child soldiers are involved practically in all armed conflicts around the world; specifically, in 2004–2007 they actively participated in conflicts in 19 countries (Coalition to Stop to Use of Child Soldiers 2008b: p. 10 and 9). And we may say that in all these conflicts girls as well as boys are used as child soldiers (4), although their roles in the armed groups may vary (or may not either). On average, girls constitute approximately one third of all child soldiers participating in conflicts (e. g. Save the Children 2005: p. 1). The experience of female and male child soldiers may be quite similar but there may be significant differences as well. Especially these differences show that it makes sense to distinguish between girls and boys in armed conflicts and to draw some attention specifically to girl child soldiers, too. On the following lines we will try to present these differences, or at least some of them; they are of certain relevance both before a girl enters an armed group (5), during her participation there and after she leaves the group – this paper calls these pre – participation, participation and post – participation phases. However, even if we recognise these differences we must still bear in mind that while the situation and position of a boy child soldier may not vary so much from one region or armed group to another, the situation and position of girl child soldiers really does. Therefore it is not possible to conceive that the below – mentioned applies to all of them and to ignore the particularities of each region/armed group/case; to do so would be useless if we want to help them, strengthen their protection or make any progress in this area at all.

Pre-participation phase

There are various ways in which a child may engage with an armed group, no matter if governmental or non-state one. (6) Three general ways are usually recognised: compulsory recruitment, forced recruitment and volunteering (Happold 2005: p. 8). The latter two are of particular interest for us since they may be specifically gender – oriented. While compulsory recruitment is usually set by the law, forced recruitment occurs when children are simply abducted, seized out of schools, streets, or even their homes during, for example, an invasion of an armed group into their village. Girls may be forcibly recruited intentionally when they are sought for playing a specific role in the group which boys cannot (see below). The third possibility, sometimes the most frequent one (Happold 2005: p. 8) (7), is very disputable as there are doubts about real freedom of choice of children in such situations (Brett, Specht 2004: pp. 105–121; Happold 2005: p. 29 et seq.; Machel 1996: para. 38). Anyway, there is a variety of reasons why children decide to enter an armed group on their own (Happold 2005: p. 11 et seq.). The reasons which are particularly, although not exclusively, connected with female children include domestic problems, protection and equality (Gilbertson 2008: p. 221). (8) Many girls are subject to domestic exploitation and/or abuse which may be of sexual, physical and/or mental character, e.g. sexual violence, beatings, being a “domestic servant”. Moreover, they are not allowed to decide on their own upon their future, nobody cares about their visions, desires, expectations; they are often forced into a marriage they don’t want to contract etc. In such situations it may seem to them that there is no other option than to escape from their actual homes and join a fighting group which may provide them with better future. Girls may also seek a kind of protection by joining an armed group since as civilians they are perhaps the most vulnerable social group in the armed conflict: “given the high level of physical and sexual abuse of girls in some current armed conflicts, the decision to take up arms rather than waiting to be raped, maimed and/or killed is a rationale decision for teenage girls“ (Brett 2002: p. 3) – they “volunteer to survive” (Gilbertson 2008: p. 222). And some girls consider the life with an armed group, usually an anti – governmental one, as an opportunity to reach a better social position or role, to reach equality with men/boys. Indeed, some opposition groups have been really based on ideologies claiming equality between women and men and treating both genders in the same way. Unfortunately, even if it is true (9) and girls’ fight, actions, decisions, or generally voices are given the same weight as those of boys during the conflict, the situation often changes dramatically after the arms fall silent and the life gets into the old rut. (10) To end with, it should be added that there is never, or at least usually not, one sole reason for joining an armed group but the girl’s decision is influenced from more directions; different reasons interact among one another and they are interdependent. Cultural environment, local customs and traditions – namely perception of the role and position of woman or girl in the society – are also very important (Brett 2002: pp. 2–5).

Participation phase

This phase may be the most decisive from the legal point of view as the current law dealing with child soldiers often focuses on the “direct” or “active” participation of children in armed conflicts. This legal short – sightedness may have particularly unpropitious consequences for the effective protection of girl child soldiers and prevention of their recruitment and use, as will be discussed below. The problem with girls is that their participation in armed conflicts usually does not consist only of combating, as may be the case of some boys, but they are involved in variety of activities, ranging from providing sexual services over nursing and preparing food, serving as spies and messengers to fighting with guns. Generally, we may say that child soldiers – both boys and girls – are used in different roles and functions within armed groups. These include functions of porters, guards, domestic workers (in gardens, gathering and preparing food, cleaning), lookouts and messengers, spies, informants, workers for laying landmines and also looking for them, and of course combatants and providers of combat training for new members, etc. (Machel 1996: paras. 44–45; Gilbertson 2008: p. 223). Nevertheless, there are some specific “tasks” assigned to girls much more frequently than to boys: childcare, medical assistance and sexual services (Fujio 2008: p. 8; Brett, Specht 2004: p. 87). It means that some girls who are running away from an unbearable situation in their family meet with the same or even worse situation and work in the group. Girl child soldiers are sometimes involved in combat especially in order to intimidate the enemy, too (McKay 2008: p. 170). (11)


Being a “sexual slave” is perhaps one of the most common pictures of a girl involved in an armed conflict. Many of, maybe most of, female child soldiers are used also for rendering sexual services, some of the girls are even intentionally abducted or recruited to become “wives” of commanders, sometimes serving as a kind of reward for the best fighters (Gilbertson 2008: p. 223), other times being sexually abused daily by multiple men (Fujio 2008: p. 9); but in both possibilities they are treated rather as a thing than as a human being. In other cases, providing sexual gratification to men or boys in the group may be an additional task for girls engaged mainly in other activities as demonstratively listed above (Quenivet 2008: p. 222). And there are also groups where girls may choose one or more partners because this could bring them some benefits such as more or better food or clothes, higher “comfort”, or even better social position within the group (Brett 2002: p. 2). On the other hand, it cannot be supposed that every female child soldier has participated in sexual activity during this period of her life. There are also groups, rather opposition ones, which strictly forbid any sexual relations between their members or make them subject to approval of the authorities.(12) It follows that sexual exploitation, although widely spread, should not be simply assumed in all cases – “to do so is to deny the individual experiences of the girls and to treat them as a category of actual or potential sexual objects“ and “is likely to further stigmatise the girls and limit their future prospects and status in society” (Brett 2002: p. 2).

Post-participation phase

Although this phase is often not addressed, at least not primarily, by the law, it is necessary to mention it as well to complete the picture of a female child soldier. It is clear that participation in armed conflicts brings significant consequences to children’s lives, both of physical, psychological and social nature. Among specifics connected mainly with girls one can imagine health problems caused by the sexual activity which girls are often forced into. These problems include sexually transmitted diseases, even HIV/AIDS, problems caused by unwanted pregnancies and possible abortions during and after which girls usually do not receive proper medical care; as often duly untreated they may turn into more or less serious lifelong problems and illnesses, possibly affecting also reproductive capabilities of the girl. On the contrary, if girls become pregnant and they are not forced to abortion they return not alone but with a child, or children, from the conflict. Yet, these children may suffer as much as their mothers from possible unfriendly environment reluctant to accept them. Moreover, the mother herself may have problems with accepting and/or loving an unwanted “war child” (Gilbertson 2008: pp. 226–227). Girl’s sexual activity during the conflict, even only presumed one, may stigmatize her in eyes of her own family and original environment after her return; she may be seen as “impure” so her family rejects her, she cannot find either a husband or even a job, which explains possible increased rates of prostitution after armed conflicts. Opportunities to get back into a “normal” life are even more diminished for these girls since many times they are excluded from disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programmes. This exclusion is frequently caused by a condition for participation which consists in returning one weapon – girl soldiers who have not served as combatants but in other, support roles simply cannot meet this condition (Fujio 2008: pp. 12–13). (13) All the described circumstances, as well as many other, affect also the mind of a former female child soldier. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, despair, rage and guilt are not surprising (Fujio 2008: p. 11). However, what may be unexpected is difference in perceiving the conflict experience by boys and by girls – some researches, namely from Sierra Leone, show that “whereas [boys] seek – and are permitted – to absolve themselves from blame by abdicating responsibility on the basis that they were forced, drugged, had no other choice, and so on, girls do not attempt to do so even though their circumstances were very similar” (Brett, Specht 2004: p. 97). According to that research, moreover, “in Sierra Leone it is easier for a boy to be accepted after amputating the hand of villagers, than for a girl to be accepted after being the victim of rape” (Brett, Specht 2004: p. 97). Nevertheless, this is not a general conclusion as it always depends on the particular culture and its rules, attitudes and view of the role of girl/woman in the society.

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