Giving Visibility to the Issue of Girls in Armed Conflict

by Eduardo Sánchez

In recent decades the international community has recognized the increasing need to tackle the issues pertaining to women in war as well as those of child soldiers. However, the linkage between both issues seems to be distant at the present time. The reality is that girls participate and have participated directly or indirectly in armed conflicts, but their specific plight has not received the visibility it deserves.

Distinction must be made between those who actively participate in the frontlines of armed conflict and those who remain in the “backstage” of war. In either sense, young girls formally incorporated into the structures of warring parties as child soldiers have generally been kidnapped, forcefully recruited or coerced into joining armed groups.

Probably one of the most serious effects of being inside a conflict scenario is sexual violence, systematic and tolerated practices that mainly involve rape, forced marriages, and prostitution, among others. Forced marriages have been used to perpetuate and justify sexual violence. Young girls are also socialized and integrated into the structures of armed groups through this practice in an effort to secure their allegiance to the group’s cause and to other combatants, as well as to provide for the so-called “needs” of their male counterparts.

For those who are allowed to participate as combatants, their position will almost always be relegated to the lower ranks and will be subject to overt discrimination. However, this does not mean that they will no longer be subject to rape and harassment; the very nature of being female is almost a guarantee of suffering from sexual violence.

Nonetheless, not all impacts on these girls happen directly in the midst of the frontlines. Many of them will become part of the support structure of armed groups, performing a wide range of activities, mostly under conditions similar to forced labor.

If these girls are not killed during wartime or as a result of the abuse they are subjected to, they still must endure continued exploitation and violence inside an environment of utmost impunity.

Regrettably, these negative issues do not always end with their escape or release. By itself, reintegration of armed group members back into society can be a complicated process. Furthermore, girls who have been subjected to these forms of violence will have an even more difficult time adapting to a normal life and are usually ostracized by their families and society.

How can we overcome this problematic and redirect efforts to address the plight of young girls in armed conflict? Isolated efforts in the field of child soldiers must recognize the specific situation of females in war. Addressing the issue also means actions that recognize that girls have further needs in the strategies to avoid their recruitment as child soldiers, secure their prompt release, and aid them after they are no longer inside the ranks. Each stage requires different forms of intervention, but still with a holistic and interconnected approach.