New Initiative Sets Out to Prevent Child Soldiers

By: Nina DeVries

It’s been over a decade since the civil war ended in Sierra Leone.  During the war, 50,000 people were killed and millions displaced.  Child soldiers played a key role in the conflict, as rebels recruited them to pick up weapons, fight and be used as sex slaves and spies.  Now, a non-profit group is looking to help Sierra Leone change its image and become a leader in the campaign against the use child soldiers in Africa.

Twenty-seven-year-old Adama – not her real name – was recruited by rebels in the north of Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war.

“They asked my father to have sex with me, he refused, when he refused, he lost his life… Seeing your dad [killed] in cold blood in front of you, it’s not easy,” she said.

A rebel then raped her at 12 years of age.

Adama says she spent two years with the rebel group The Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

She says normally she would’ve become a permanent sex slave for them but brigadier general’s wife took a liking to her, and she only had to cook and clean for the RUF members.

Or act as a spy.

“So we are the ones they send as intelligence to get info for them, so we go back and say hey, there’s this many police and soldiers around and they get ready to go for the fight,” she said.

She eventually managed to escape to Guinea where she received refugee status before coming back to Sierra Leone when the war ended.

Thousands of other children captured by rebels during the Sierra Leone civil war have similar stories, according to a Canadian-based organization, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

The organization, created in 2008 by Roméo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general and former force commander of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda, estimates that 10,000 children were victims of military recruitment in Sierra Leone.

Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the organization, says the initiative aims to create training and education programs to prevent the future use of child soldiers.

Whitman says the organization plans to with work the military and police in Sierra Leone as well as youth.

“So teaching kids that if conflict does break out, you need to be aware that you could be taken by an armed group, here is how we suggest how you might prevent yourself from being taken, if you are taken, here are some pointers on how to escape being taken,” she said.

Whitman says the Child Soldiers Initiative has trained troops around the globe on how to deal with child soldiers in combat but this is the first time the organization is working directly with a country for a nationwide project.

“What if we look at this as creating a model for how the rest of world could prevent the use of children in armed conflict and take it and mold it so can be used in DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo] or Somalia or other contacts around the world,” she said.

Kalia Sesay, the officer for police peacekeeping operations in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, says many former child soldiers have now been reintegrated into society but more rehabilitation could still be done.  Some former child soldiers have gone on to lead a life of drugs and crime.

“There might be one or two bad eggs that need rehabilitation and it is a police concern which we need to work on,” said Sesay.

Meanwhile, Adama is pleased the initiative is happening.  She says it’s been hard to be accepted back into society because of her past.

“When these things have happened, there are stigmas around us.  Some are even afraid of coming close to us and interacting with us so I think with this program things will change,” she said.

The project is expected to be fully operating in Sierra Leone by June.

Analysis: Girl child soldiers face new battles in civilian life

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By: IRIN News

JOHANNESBURG, 12 February 2013 (IRIN) – Girl child soldiers are often thought of only as “sex slaves”, a term that glosses over the complex roles many play within armed groups and in some national armies. This thinking contributes to their subsequent invisibility in the demobilization processes – in fact, girls are frequently the most challenging child soldiers to rehabilitate.

The broad categorization of girl soldiers as victims of sexual abuse obscures the fact that they are often highly valued militarily. While sexual abuse is believed to be widespread, girls’ vulnerability may vary, as attitudes toward women differ extensively across militias: In Colombia, the Marxist-leaning groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) treated female soldiers as equal to males, while right-wing paramilitary groups were known to embrace gender stereotypes.

Some have argued that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes (DDR) are ill-equipped to address the needs of girls. DDR was designed for adult male combatants, and over the years has incorporated female combatants, followed by boy soldiers and then girls.

A January 2013 World Bank briefing, Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations, says: “The use of girls [by armed forces] has been confirmed in Colombia, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], East Timor, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and West Africa. There are some 12,500 in DRC. However, girls are generally less visible and up to now have hardly benefited from demobilization and reintegration programmes for child soldiers.”

“No one knows what has happened after a DDR process to the large majority of girls associated with the armed groups,” the briefing said.

About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child soldier DDR programmes dwindles to five percent or less.

Girls often conceal their association with armed groups, Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told IRIN. In traditional societies, enrolling in DDR could confirm a past that imperils their future: “In contexts of entrenched gender discrimination, and in situations where a girl’s ‘value’ is defined in terms of her purity and marriageability, the stigma attached to involvement in sexual activity, whether real or imputed, can result in exclusion and acute impoverishment,” he said.

Seeking gender equality

Then there is the uncomfortable reality that some conflicts may actually fast-track gender emancipation.

A 2012 report by Tone Bleie of the University of Tromsø’s Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) explores this issue. During Nepal’s civil war, when Maoists conscripted “one member per house”, some parents offered their daughters to spare “sons whom they considered as their life insurance.” Of the Maoists’ 23,610 combatants at the cessation of hostilities, 5,033 were female, and of them 988 were girls.

“Female combatants developed a new sense of pride and dignity due to personal sacrifices, military courage, feats in the battlefield and prospects of promotion in the ranks”

“Female combatants developed a new sense of pride and dignity due to personal sacrifices, military courage, feats in the battlefield and prospects of promotion in the ranks,” the report says.

In the wake of Nepal’s 2006 ceasefire, during the cantonment of Maoists rebels and the subsequent reintegration process, girls and women were returned “to [the] very low position of women in traditional Nepalese feudal society,” Desmond Molloy, a panellist at the International Research Group on Reintegration at the CPS, told IRIN.

“Inter-cast marriage, and marriage in general, was encouraged in the cantonment. This is taboo in Nepali society and proved a major obstacle for reintegration of young girls back into society, especially when they have children, as many do. Further there is in [Nepal’s] society a perception of a promiscuous environment in the cantonment. So many young girls were viewed with suspicion by their families, rejected by their new in-laws or ostracized by the community,” Molloy said.

Abdul Hameed Omar, programme manager for the UN Development Programme’s Interagency Rehabilitation Programme, told IRIN that acceptance of inter-cast marriages was particularly problematic. “Children have been denied birth certificates, and women have been denied their citizenship certificates. When the community knows that a woman has been part of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], these women sometimes face a stigma,” he said.

He said attitudes of male Maoist ex-combatants “vary widely” but that “many voiced opinions that were not in line with their previous [gender equality] beliefs during the conflict. Other male ex-combatants who played traditionally female roles during the conflict, i.e., cooking or childcare, no longer feel that these are appropriate roles for men outside of the PLA.”

Loss of power

Many Colombian girl soldiers, who fought as equals to their male counterparts, struggled with the double standards of civilian life.

“For some girls, belonging to an illegal armed group gives them a sense of power and control that they may not otherwise experience living in a relatively conservative, ‘machista’ [chauvinist] society,” said Overcoming Lost Childhoods, a Care International report about rehabilitating Colombian child soldiers.

By the end of Eritrea’s 30-year-long liberation war, in 1991, females comprised between 25 and 30 percent of combatants. The gender-equality ideals espoused by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) had proved an attractive lure for female recruits, including some who were teenagers or younger.

“Many Eritrean female ex-fighters experienced the years of war as preferable to the time that came afterwards”

But “many Eritrean female ex-fighters experienced the years of war as preferable to the time that came afterwards… They had felt respected, equal and empowered, but this was all lost after the war when women were pushed towards traditional gender roles,” said the 2008 report Young Female Fighters in African Wars, Conflict and Its Consequences.

Eritrea’s DDR programmes initially tailored economic opportunities for women to traditional gender roles – basket weaving, typing and embroidery – but this did not provide a sustainable livelihood. Training women in traditionally male trades also proved fruitless because society’s norms ultimately dictated who could get which jobs.

“Furthermore, female ex-fighters had a hard time getting married after the war as men usually claimed that these women had lost their femininity during the war. Many male ex-fighters also divorced their fighter wives for this reason and married civilian women,” the report said.

Duality

Girl soldiers’ versatility – they serve as combatants, spies, domestics, porters and “bush wives” – makes them highly valued among armed groups, which can also increase their difficulty reintegrating into civilian life.

Despite this, punishments for girls in northern Uganda, such as whipping or caning, were meted out for the smallest infractions, Linda Dale, director of Children/Youth as Peacebuilders (CAP), told IRIN.

“There is a strong tendency to force a kind of passivity on girls while at the same time they are expected to be combatants. This duality, as well as the effect of sexual violence, makes their rehabilitation more complicated, in my view,” she said.

The length of captivity also differed between the sexes; average internment period for girls in northern Uganda was six to seven years, while boys faced about three years, Dale said. “Because of that, the effects of the experience, and therefore the need for more assistance in re-integration, will be higher. For example, many girl returnees are illiterate because they have been out of school so long.”

Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative told IRIN that some girls can be seen as suffering from Stockholm syndrome, where captives develop a sympathetic association with their abusers.

“Girls were raped but then given to or chosen by a commander to be a ‘wife’. They are confused about their experiences, their guilt, their families’ expectations and religious beliefs. Additionally, many have children fathered by their captors. They are often rejected when they return home and viewed as non-marriageable material, damaged goods. With this kind of a homecoming, it creates confusion about your identity and your self-worth,” she said.

Invisibility

The assumptions and expectations of people operating DDR programmes may also affect girls’ reintegration.

Girl soldiers are often assumed to be “‘following along’, rather than girls who have been recruited and used, however informally, for military purposes… These assumptions have resulted in tens of thousands of girls being literally ‘invisible’ to DDR programmers, although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years,” said Clarke of Child Soldiers International.

“Boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear”

Phillip Lancaster, former head of the DDR programme for the UN Organization Mission in DRC, told IRIN, “Boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear.” DDR programmes might “ignore girls on the assumption that they don’t present the same threat.”

“My own experience is that girls are often invisible to DDR programmes that draw narrow categories around the notion of combat,” he said. “It’s tricky to avoid getting caught up in categories as soon as one starts trying to define parameters of qualification for DDR programmes, and most of the decisions tend to have a somewhat arbitrary flavour simply because of the complexity of the subject matter.

“Most of the Congolese armed groups… draw on local community resources… The definition of girl child soldier in this setting could, in theory, extend over all the young females in a community who were supporting, supplying, informing or directly fighting with a relevant armed group.”

Once a recruiter, Sierra Leone a leader in preventing child soldiers

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By: LGen Roméo Dallaire and Dr. Shelly Whitman

With French warplanes bombing Timbuktu, the recent announcement by Sierra Leonean President Ernest Koroma that his country would contribute more than 600 troops to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) went largely unnoticed in the West.

This announcement, however, shows that Sierra Leone truly has turned a corner in its movement toward the consolidation of peace. It’s been 11 years since the end of the West African nation’s civil war, a bloody conflict that displaced more than 2.5 million people and claimed the lives of 50,000 citizens.

Moreover, an estimated 10,000 children were the victims of military recruitment by all sides to the conflict, comprising more than half of the fighting forces.

The long-term impacts of the use of child soldiers is still being felt in places like Sierra Leone, which continues to struggle with this legacy. It is palpable. You can feel it in the streets. As one young man recounted to us on our drive from Lungi to the ferry crossing into Freetown, “Welcome to Sierra Leone. Security is perfect, for now. Tomorrow one does not know.”

Things are improving. Over the past decade, Sierra Leone has demobilized ex-combatants, conducted two free and fair democratic elections, hosted a UN-mandated special court to prosecute those responsible for recruiting child soldiers and conducting mass atrocities, and is now engaged in the first attempt to train all of its security personnel on the prevention of the use of children in armed conflict and their interaction with child soldiers, a project of which my organization is a partner. It is not insignificant that many of Sierra Leone’s soldiers are themselves former child soldiers.

Still, it is hard to believe that just over a decade ago Sierra Leone had Nigerian peacekeepers on its soil, attempting to bring an end to the conflict. Sierra Leone’s commitment to send troops to Mali underscores the transition it has made from conflict-zone to troop-contributing country to African Union peacekeeping missions, as it also has contributed troops to the UNAMID force in Sudan, another hotspot for the military recruitment of children. It is currently preparing for participation in an AU mission (AMISOM) in Somalia.

This progress is partly due to the professionalization of its military by allied countries, including the U.K. and Canada. Its decision now to train its troops to prevent the use of child soldiers will be critical in conflicts where child soldiers are a significant and, at times, primary weapon of war, such as Mali. Preparing for this interaction must be at the top of the security agenda. Ttroop-contributing countries from Africa understand this reality far more intimately than their Western counterparts.

AU peacekeeping missions and regional partners such as ECOWAS and AFISMA will continue to be major players in conflicts on the continent as the UN and Western Nations continue to scale back their commitments on the continent, a trend which has continued since the early 1990s.

As such, commitments to support training and professionalization of the AU and ECOWAS troops must be a priority for Canada and other Western nations. This preparation includes understanding how to prevent and react to the interaction with child soldiers.

If Sierra Leone understands the importance of such training and preparation, surely the West can offer support through funding and resources.

Prevention of the use of children as soldiers needs to be recognized as a significant step in preventing and dealing with armed conflict – an early warning indicator that has yet to be taken seriously by those who have the mandate to do so.

As one former child soldier said to us in Freetown: “We are tired of people coming here to take our stories, who then leave and nothing changes. We want to own the change and ensure the future of our country never sees children used in war again.”

The children of Sierra Leone, Mali, Sudan, and Somalia deserve nothing less.

Senator Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general and former Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Dr. Shelly Whitman is the executive director of The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. February 12 is the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.