Written by: Ilina Trendafilova, a third year International Relations student who enjoys engaging with topics related to Africa, Eastern Europe and child soldiers. The article is inspired by her dissertation on Child Soldiers in Northern Uganda.
A woman can do what a man can. We were all equal. – Sonia, Philippines[i]
Ever since I was 10 years old, I have wanted to write on child soldiers. I was blessed in a way that millions are not – I had a roof over my head, food on my table at any time, and I lived in a safe place. It was completely impossible for me to comprehend how there could be girls and boys my age cutting people with machetes and shooting AK-47s. Yet my country, Bulgaria, has a long history of child soldiers – janissaries, who were toddlers abducted from their villages to be incorporated into the Ottoman army whilst Bulgaria was under Ottoman slavery. Yet, I could not understand how in the 21st century, there could still be so many children deprived of the unique possibility to have a childhood filled with playing with peers, going to school and star-gazing. I know now that in many places in the world – Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Colombia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and many others, that would not be considered a normal childhood. For some 10-year old children, a life carrying arms and going through sexual slavery is normal.
Girls living in the bush as active combatants is not the image that comes to mind when one thinks of child soldiers. However, most non-state armed groups take an intriguing stance at gender issues by not discrimination on the basis of gender when they decide who to abduct for their forces. Despite their brutality, they promote equality in quite a peculiar way by providing the opportunity to both girls and boys to fight. In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leaders treat girls very similarly to boy combatants. Whilst girls are often abducted to serve as porters, loaders and most commonly sex slaves and ‘wives’ to commanders, many of them have actively participated in atrocities, and many of them voluntarily. Being in the bush is a source of security as the girls have ‘husbands’ who provide for them and bear children in the bush. A girl from the Congo shares her experience of joining the bush life out of curiosity:
I went to war because I wanted to see how it was – Catherine, DRC[ii]
To treat them as pure victims and to focus on their suffering would be too narrow and simplistic. It would ignore their spiritual resilience and rational agency. In the eyes of many girls who live every second in fear of their house being attacked, in fear of getting killed or raped, joining a rebel group could be quite appealing; on top of eating once a day if they are lucky, with no education or job opportunities. Going to the bush could be a voluntary rational decision by a girl and that behaviour is a response to her living situation. It would not be psychopathy or an ‘uncivilised’ act. I am not trying to make excuses for political violence but to present the different reality of life for many girls who are drawn by the freedom and indulgence the bush life provides. Their acts can also be seen as push factors from the socio-political conditions of their country, i.e., as self-defence and a means of self-preservation. For whatever reason they joined, many girls truly immerse themselves in the rebel life:
[…] people had better not come to bother us [her and her girl soldier peers] … or we killed you! When you are a girl, you have to be harder, or the men don’t respect you. – Catherine, DRC[iii]
For those who were abducted, the experience is fundamentally traumatising and scary at first – they are raped and beaten, forced to walk through the bushes for miles at a time and force into ‘marriage’ with men much older than them. They have no choice but to bear them children. In such circumstances, it becomes hard to live in the bush not only because they can difficultly escape, but because many choose to stay because of the high level of stigma they would face back home it they returned. There, they have their ‘husbands’ for whom they sometimes grow fond, they have security for themselves, their children and food. If they are freed or decide to escape back home, most of them are not accepted by their families but are stigmatised by the whole village for their time in the bush and their rebel ‘husbands.’
I ran away to escape a marriage I didn’t like. I ended up in a worse setup now and what’s what I have earned. – Punitha, Sri Lanka[i]
The myth of girl soldiers as simply sex slaves is too narrow to reflect the complexities behind child soldiering, and unfair to those who made the decision to join. The reality is that out of approximately 200,000[i] child soldiers in the world, a vast amount are girl soldiers of whom at least some percentage joined voluntarily. They grow with the rebels and cease to imagine having any other identity. The generalised image of boys with guns and girls as sex slaves diminishes greatly girls’ experiences as soldiers. Sometimes girls join groups for ideological reasons or for an improved societal status, as evident in cases of girls joining the so-called Islamic State in search of a husband.
In actuality, the recruitment of girls is not, in the view of warlords, simply a way of insinuating fear but a strategic act. Not only do they provide themselves with ‘wives’ and ‘maids’ this way but they also make great use of girls who are active in battle. Due to the prevalent idea of girls as innocent victims, no one would suspect a little girl to shoot at them or to transport drugs. And the ugly truth is that many girls are proud of their function and enjoy it.
If one is outraged when thinking of female child soldiers, look at their life prospects and circumstances. The sad reality is, it is not so clear-cut. The good news is something can be done. We can raise awareness about the fact that this is circumstantial and can be changed. And understanding their plight is the first step.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/30/world/middleeast/50-days-of-war-leave-israelis-and-palestinians-only-more-entrenched.html?_r=0 copyright: Wissam Nassar for New York Times
[i] The number is constantly debated among scholars and organisations as an accurate statistic of the count of child soldiers cannot be provided
[i] Ibid, p. 97
[i] Quoted in Rachel Brett and Irma Specht, Young soldiers: Why they choose to fight, 2004, International Labour Organisation, p. 91
[ii] Ibid, p. 24
[iii] Ibid, p. 85