What about girls? Examining the exclusion of girl soldiers in the post-conflict peace-building process

By Natalie Domaas
Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst

Disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programmes implemented in post-conflict settings have faced much criticism over their effectiveness and success rate. Such criticisms include the lack of a gendered perspective, which causes many female combatants to be excluded from these programmes. While the plight of female combatants and the need for gender-specific assistance in post-conflict settings has received increasing attention, there is another group that continues to fall through the cracks: girl soldiers.

In civil conflicts children are often abducted by rebel groups to act as soldiers and carry out various tasks that make them a crucial part of these groups. However, child soldiers are mainly thought to be boys, when 10-30% of all child soldiers are girls and can be found in almost all non-state armed groups.[1] Even with this high number of girl soldiers present, they are often excluded from DDR programmes due to gendered notions of who can be a fighter, although the manner in which rebel groups utilise child soldiers means that almost all girl soldiers carry a weapon at one point during a conflict.[2] Due to their age girl soldiers technically fall under the international protections provided to minors involved in conflict, however, gendered perceptions tend to overshadow their age, resulting in most girl soldiers being categorised as “bush wives” or “camp followers”.[3]

The plight of girl soldiers is specific in that they experience two different power dynamics within armed groups as they are both underage and female. The first is the power dynamic all child soldiers face which is that of adult-child, while the second is male-female and is something most women combatants experience.[4] These intersecting dynamics create a unique experience for girl soldiers that goes unnoticed and can create a myriad of problems once a conflict ends. The mistreatment of girl soldiers by rebels and DDR programmes creates specific security concerns because it shows a critical breakdown in state-society relations that threatens its own children and future citizens.[5]

It is for these reasons that this paper seeks to examine why do DDR programmes overlook girl soldiers, and to ask what consequences this have for the girl soldiers. To do so, this paper will first focus on analysing traditional gender perspectives surrounding women combatants and how this can lead to their exclusion from DDR programmes, then moving on to explain how girl soldiers experience these same stereotypes as a result of wider societal structures. Then, this paper will examine the categorisation of girl soldiers as child soldiers as defined in the Cape Town Principles, yet how their gender will often overshadow their age causing their exclusion from DDR programmes. Next, the general flaws of DDR programmes will be examined to determine how girl soldiers are being overlooked. In the final section, this paper will explain the consequences that girl soldiers experience from being excluded from DDR programmes by examining general issues child soldiers face in post-conflict settings, then turning to the specific physical and psychological impact conflict has on girl soldiers. This paper will then conclude by looking at the general consequences’ girls experience from the lack of gender and age sensitivity in DDR programmes, before turning to discuss issues of social reintegration. Due to length, this paper will focus solely on girls who have been abducted into armed rebel groups.

Traditionally, women have been perceived as being victims of war rather than active participants. These beliefs are the product of social perceptions of gender where men are seen as aggressive, and thus more inclined to violence, while women are viewed as peaceful.[6] Not only does this support and reproduce patriarchal values, but it takes away women’s agency and creates an idea that women who do participate in conflict are unnatural or deviant.[7] Due to the ‘unnaturalness’ of women fighters, this group has been rendered invisible to the post-conflict policies of national governments and international organisations, including DDR programmes.[8]

The rigid classification of who can participate in DDR programmes tends to exclude women, since usually only people with a gun, which can be traded in during the disarmament period, are allowed to continue through the demobilisation and reintegration stages.[9] Women, and especially young girls, hold various roles within rebel groups including combat positions, meaning they likely operate a weapon at one point during a conflict. However, due to the male-female power dynamic within these groups, women are frequently forced to give their weapon to a male commander, which disqualifies them from DDR programmes since they have no weapon to turn in.[10] The same occurs to girl soldiers, except they will have the added experience of the adult-child power dynamic.[11] This results in girl soldiers being told to give their weapon to a commander either to “protect” them from the DDR programme as they are told it is a way for the government to punish combatants, or the commander will give the girls’ weapon to a boy solider so he may go through the DDR process instead.[12] This occurs because the gender dynamics within armed groups often mirrors the wider gender hierarchies within a community, meaning that women and girls who live in a predominantly patriarchal society face the same kind of marginalisation within armed groups after abduction.[13]

Even though girl soldiers experience many of the same treatments as older female combatants, their status as minors categorises them as child soldiers as outlined in the Cape Town Principles. According to the Principles a child solider is, “any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. It includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.”[14]

While this definition is highly inclusive and references the plight of girl soldiers specifically, the international community continues to fail them by often minimising statistics on their participation in reports and resorting to overgeneralised language about the roles they play within rebel groups, mainly referring to them as “wives” or “rewards for soldiers.”[15] The international community continually references girl soldiers as a priority target group for DDR programmes, however, the rigidity of who is allowed to participate in DDR programmes, as well as gendered perceptions of who can be a combatant, causes the repeated exclusion of girl soldiers.[16]

Much like the assumption that a combatant is male, when reference is made to child soldiers in policies there is an unspoken assumption that the children in question are boys for the same gendered reasons women are not considered combatants.[17] These assumptions have led to DDR programmes being geared towards males. Even in instances where girls are specifically referenced in the outline for DDR programmes, aid packages only contain male clothing and lack feminine hygiene products, alienating and discouraging girls from participating.[18] These trends are concerning considering that girls are the sustaining force behind rebel groups due to the various roles they play. Without girls, these groups would not be able to carry out their operations, which is also a reason why girls are often abducted.[19]

Many of the issues that have led to DDR programmes overlooking girls has to do with the initial design and implementation of the programmes. Not only do the policies that influence these programmes lack accurate statistics and gender-sensitive language, but DDR programmes often operate under two assumptions: That the national government will cooperate with the United Nations agenda and be involved in the DDR process from preparation to implementation, and that DDR is a technology for stabilisation and state-building, when in reality it is a process of social engineering.[20] DDR programmes are also often planned and implemented by military personnel who hold traditional gender perceptions of who can be a combatant, causing women to be left out of the picture.[21] Similarly, children as a whole are rarely considered to be critical actors during a conflict due to perceptions of their capabilities because of their young age.[22]

Not only do DDR programmes reduce the role of girls in armed groups, leading to their exclusion, but oftentimes the agendas of the international community and national governments do not match, especially in instances when a DDR programme is meant to take place in a country with traditional gender hierarchies.[23] DDR programmes are also dominated by results-based management due to donor funding, causing these programmes to not be tailored to a specific conflict, which means it is easy for the needs and existence of girl soldiers to fall through the cracks.[24] The child-female identity of girl soldiers gives them a double sense of invisibility, which when coupled with the inconsistences in the creation and implementation of DDR programmes, results in girl soldiers being overlooked.

If girl soldiers are vital to armed groups, yet they do not receive help in the post-conflict environment, what consequences does this have for the girls? To answer this, one must first examine general issues all child soldiers face at the end of a conflict. One problem with child soldiers, both boys and girls, who try to reintegrate into society is that their socialisation and maturation process within a family setting is interrupted when they are abducted and is then replaced with new norms and a social identity created through group experiences within armed groups.[25] The goal of an armed group is to undo the community norms children learn up to the point of their abduction, which complicates their reintegration because DDR programmes would need to be highly context-specific to address the children’s distinct needs based on their location, group membership, and gender.[26] Children also do not have the same abilities as adults to reason and reflect on what has occurred once the fighting has stopped, causing children to be more effected by their situation and therefore requiring specific help.[27] While it is true that all child soldiers need attention to address their specific needs, it would be unwise to group boys and girls together because their gender also influences their experiences within armed groups, causing them to react to the post-conflict environment differently and requiring different levels of assistance.

Although child soldiers are impacted by the adult-child power relations within armed groups, girls experience and process trauma differently than boys.[28] This is partly due to girls experiencing gender power relations within armed groups, which consists of repeated sexual violence and being forced to marry group members under the threat of death.[29] This creates a myriad of consequences for girls, especially because they are given no formal assistance due to their being overlooked by DDR programmes. Such consequences include long-term complications to girl’s physical health due to rampant sexual abuse which causes STD’s, pelvic inflammatory disease, and infertility.[30] Many girls are also mothers or pregnant by the time a conflict ends due to rape. They experience poor physical health during and after pregnancy due to a lack of resources and unsafe birthing practices, which can also impact their mental health and their ability to raise a baby when they themselves are still children.[31] DDR programmes overlooking girl soldiers means that girls who experience this physical and mental pain receive no medical assistance and are forced to try and cope with what they have endured on their own, which for children is extremely difficult given their cognitive underdevelopment and can lead to severe problems as they grow into adulthood.

As stated previously, DDR programmes often categorise girl soldiers as “bush wives” or “camp followers” which disqualifies them from participating in these programmes.[32] This creates severe consequences for girl soldiers because it leaves them alone and vulnerable in a situation where they have little information and control. During his research in Sierra Leone, Coulter found that due to the classification of girl soldiers they are either abandoned and left on the side of roads while the rest of the armed group they belong to are taken to DDR camps, or due to uncertainty about their future and inability to participate in DDR programmes themselves, follow their abductor to the DDR camps where they face continued sexual abuse.[33]

Many girls also report being threatened by their bush husband to not enrol in DDR programmes because they are told it would label them as a rebel which will make it more difficult to reintegrate back into their community, when in reality the men only want to collect the money these girls would have received if they had enrolled in a DDR programme.[34] The small number of women and girls that do enrol in a DDR programme report regretting their decision because they are disappointed in the help they receive and claim they were lied to. This group said that they received no education or vocational training while in the camps, and that they were offered no job positions upon completing the programme, while the men are offered security sector jobs.[35]

The unique position of girl soldiers as females and children creates another consequence when they are ignored by DDR programmes which relates to social reintegration. As females, girl soldiers who return home are expected to take-up traditional familial roles as wives and caretakers, while as children they are prevented from accessing local decision-making mechanisms.[36] These feelings of invisibility can frustrate girl soldiers who return home because they have acquired skills during the war that are not seen as transferrable, hindering their employment prospects, while also being barred from receiving an education due to traditional gender hierarchies.[37] Not only are girls put at risk by being overlooked by DDR programmes, but even those who do participate in DDR face the consequences of not having their needs met due to a lack of gender-sensitivity.

Girls who try to reintegrate themselves back into their home communities face secondary victimisation and marginalisation that most male ex-rebels do not experience. This is due to girls being shamed for going against “appropriate female behaviour” by being a part of a rebel group, and due to the widely accepted truth that girls are raped during their time with a rebel group.[38] While the reintegration of girl soldiers back into their home communities is largely dependent on the dynamics of the community itself, in the worst cases returning girl soldiers are ostracised and deemed as impure which can lead to severe psychological distress and an inability to cope with their past and present situation, making adapting back into civilian life all the more difficult.[39] For many traditional communities’ marriage is seen as the best way for these girls to return to “normal” as it creates the necessary structural conditions to, “domesticate and tame their bush-like behaviour.”[40] However, due to the stigmatisation surrounding them, many men do not want to marry girl soldiers.

While this also applies to women ex-combatants, what is unique to the stigmatisation and ostracisation of girls is the concept of a bride wealth in many traditional communities. A bride wealth is when a man pays the family of a girl to marry her, but it is usually only paid for a first marriage due to the condition that the girl would be a virgin.[41] Divorce and re-marriage in many of these communities is not uncommon, meaning that upon a second marriage it is not expected for a woman to be a virgin, but for girls this is expected, meaning that returning girl soldiers who have been raped are seen as having their worth diminished and are therefore unmarriable.[42] This categorisation forces many girls to resort to prostitution as they are often cast-out by their family and are considered to be unemployable due to their lack of hireable skills and education.[43] Essentially, girl soldiers face a lose-lose situation when trying to reintegrate in a post-conflict setting. Not only are girls effected by being excluded from DDR programmes, but the community stigmatisation they face creates increased feelings of insecurity that forces girls into unsafe practices.

Girl soldiers are in a unique position due to their primary identity being in-between that of a child and a female, which creates experiences that are different from both women combatants and boy soldiers but are yet still relatable to both groups. This identity requires that girl soldiers be given special attention in post-conflicts settings. However, a paradox arises because it is exactly due to their identity that they are often overlooked by DDR programmes. The consequences that this creates for girl soldiers ranges from forcing themselves to remain with their captor, prolonged physical and psychological damage, and ostracisation from their home community and family. Overlooking the existence and plight of girl soldiers is troublesome because they are the backbone and future of their societies, yet their worth and importance is swept aside due to the patriarchal structural conditions that they live in. The plight of girl soldiers in post-conflict environments should be taken more seriously by those who organise and implement DDR programmes because they are excluding an entire gender and generation of citizens from receiving the necessary assistance to recover from the trauma they experience from conflict.


[1] Mary-Jane Fox, “Girl Soldiers: Human Security and Gendered Insecurity,” Security Dialogue 35, no. 4 (2004):  465. And Dyan Mazurana and Susan McKay, “Where Are the Girls? Girls in Fighting Forces in Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique: Their Lives During and After War,” Rights & Democracy International Centre for Human Rights and Development (2004): 23-24.

[2] Mazurana and McKay, “Child Soldiers: What About the Girls?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 57, no. 5 (2001) and Mazurana et al. “Girls in Fighting Forces and Groups: Their Recruitment, Participation, Demobilization, and Reintegration,” Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 8, no. 2 (2002).

[3] Chris Coulter, “Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women’s Lives Through War and Peace in Sierra Leone,” Cornell University Press (2009).

[4] Fox, 470.

[5] Ibid, 476.

[6] Gunilla Lindestam de Vries, “Making It Work, Experiences in Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom with Recommendations for Sweden’s Implementation. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security,” Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden, (2005) Uppsala: The Collegium for Development Studies.

[7] Coulter et al., “Young Female Fighters in African Wars: Conflict and Its Consequences,” The Nordic Africa Institute Policy Dialogue no. 3 (2008).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fox, 470.

[12] Coulter, 154-155.

[13] Myriam Denov, “Girl Soldiers and Human Rights: Lessons from Angola, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda,” The International Journal of Human Rights 12, no. 5 (2009).

[14] United Nations Children’s Fund, “Cape Town Annotated Principles and Best Practices: Adopted by the Participants in the Symposium on the Prevention of Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa.” (1997).

[15] Mazurana et al., 100.

[16] Coulter, 157.

[17] Fox, 465.

[18] Ibid, 473.

[19] Coulter et al. 2008; Denov 2009; Fox 2004; Mazurana et al. 2002.

[20] Robert Muggah, “Innovations in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Policy and Research: Reflections on the Last Decade,” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs Working Paper 774 (2010).

[21] Coulter, 156.

[22] Alpaslan Özerdem and Suskanya Podder, “The Long Road Home: Conceptual Debates on Recruitment Experiences and Reintegration Outcomes,” chapter in Podder, Sukanya (ed.) Child Soldiers: From Recruitment to Reintegration (2011).

[23] Coulter, 156.

[24] Muggah, 7.

[25] Ibid, 3.

[26] Ibid, 5.

[27] Wenche Hauge, “Girl Soldiers in Guatemala,” chapter in Podder, Sukanya (ed.) Child Soldiers: From Recruitment to Reintegration (2011).

[28] Mazurana and McKay (2001), 35.

[29] Fox 2004; Mazurana and McKay 2001; Mazurana et al. 2002.

[30] Mazurana and McKay (2001).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Coulter, 158.

[33] Ibid, 208-209.

[34] Ibid, 159-161.

[35] Ibid, 160-162.

[36] Alpaslan Özerdem, “A Re-Conceptualisation of Ex-Combatant Reintegration: ‘Social Reintegration’ Approach,” Conflict, Security, and Development 12, no. 1 (2012).

[37] Coulter et al. 2008; Hauge 2011.

[38] Coulter 2009; Coulter et al. 2008; Denov 2009.

[39] Coulter 2009; Coulter et al. 2008.

[40] Coulter, 215.

[41] Ibid, 226-227.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Coulter et al. 2008; Mazurana et al. 2002.

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