Since 2012, the world has been pausing to recognizing the International Day of the Girl Child to highlight the particular challenges girls face globally and the continuing efforts to find avenues toward a more equitable world in which girls can thrive without fear of oppression and exploitation. With the 2018 focus on developing girls’ skillsets as a way for them to access the formal economy, we want to draw attention to a particular group of girls: girl soldiers. Their unique experiences are often left unaddressed in peace negotiations and subsequent disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) processes. The failure to understand the contributions these former girl soldiers can make to the workforce and to society at large has long-term consequences.
Globally, four out of ten child soldiers are likely to be girls. With a total estimate of 300,000 child soldiers having been active, this is no small number. The use of child soldiers is sadly not generally confined to non-state armed groups, either. In 2018 alone, seven countries have enlisted children in their regular armed forces. Enlistment and recruitment of children under 18 years old is also still common practice in at least 46 countries, which include—among others—wealthy, democratic nations such as Australia, Germany, and the UK.
Of 197 UN Member States, 167 have ratified the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. In fact, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the single most-ratified document in the world; only the U.S. has failed to ratify it.
States adhering to the standards and obligations set by international legal frameworks certainly demonstrates a positive trend toward protecting children from exploitation. Relatedly, international pressure has led to soft approaches to negotiating commitments with relevant stakeholders being made by several non-state armed groups. Among those groups is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is estimated to have had about 12,000 child soldiers in its ranks between 1975 and 2014, of which 30–35% are said to have been female.
Lessons from Colombia
The challenges these girl soldiers faced while in the group and after demobilization are numerous. Not all girls in the FARC were trained to become combatants, although possessing a weapon or the knowledge of how to use a gun often provided a level of protection many girls had never before experienced; violence against women in Colombia is rampant. In talking to female ex-combatants, former girl soldiers, and female FARC fighters in 2017 as part of an upcoming research report on the gendered experiences of ex-combatants in Colombia, most had witnessed or been subjected to domestic violence at a young age.
This is not to say that an armed group such as the FARC represented a safe haven from abuse and violence. Many reports and articles have highlighted that the FARC, for all its women’s rights rhetoric, was not immune to gender-based violence. Yet, to boil down the experience of girl soldiers to that of victimhood misses an essential point: the agency of children. In a 2013 article on child soldiers in South Sudan, Marissa O. Ensor stressed the importance of understanding the underlying reasons why child soldiers join armed groups and what that subsequently means for their reintegration. In reflecting on CRC, she emphasized the need to strike a balance between protection and the participation rights of children. In other words, “being vulnerable is not equivalent to being a victim,” and “addressing child soldiers’ agency and choice-making requires a proper recognition of their age-related vulnerabilities as well as their coping abilities and resilience.”
This recognition of their agency is particularly important when working with former girl soldiers. The ones we were able to interview for our study had much to say about prejudice, stigma, and the stereotypical notions of gender roles that generally inhibit women and girls from reaching their full potential in Colombia. And far from being peripheral, society’s belief systems—which are deeply rooted in patriarchal gender norms in Colombia— are central to female ex-combatants’ experiences.
At the same time, the girls also expressed a lot of confidence. The strength they derived from breaking with traditional gender norms by joining an armed group indicated that despite the hardship, they acquired skills that benefited them in their journeys toward reintegration, especially in urban centers. Contrary to the experiences of their male counterparts, the city did not represent both sanctuary and abyss for them. The city provided them with opportunities they had never had in the rural areas where the FARC predominately recruited its members.
However, while Colombia’s progressing economic development is promising, it also comes with many caveats. A growing job market provides many opportunities, but also requires more and more education, and former child soldiers already struggle to catch up with years of absence from formal schooling.
Attaining the levels of education needed to successfully integrate into a dynamic workforce slows child soldiers down tremendously. We were told that this challenge is often compounded even further by the financial restrictions of reintegration programs, which cannot provide the funds and support for higher education. Now, lay gender on top of that and things get really messy, as one girl soldier explained:
“It is easier for men to find employment. A man, … if he doesn’t have experience, he can work in construction and he’ll be employed. Instead, for us women, if we don't know something, then we are screwed. We can’t get a job unless it is sweeping, mopping, or washing dishes and I don’t think we’re willing.”
If past is prologue, Colombia is running the risk of allowing gender inequality to fester in a generation that could influence women’s rights substantially. Instead, girl soldiers in Colombia continue to have to fight on several fronts simultaneously. As with so many other girl soldiers, their unique experiences are not comprehensively understood, which leaves them vulnerable.
Equally troubling is the apparent inability of the private sector to absorb and retain ex-combatants. Arguably, accepting into its workforce a group of people who fought them on ideological principles is delicate. However, investing in girls early on not only demonstrates commitment to gender equality, it will more importantly be the path to a more peaceful and prosperous society.