Girl soldiers fought in 55 countries in last 13 years

Girls were part of fighting forces in 55 countries and participated in conflicts in 38 nations 1990 and last year, according to a study.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 10:04 IST

Girls were part of fighting forces in 55 countries and participated in conflicts in 38 nations in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East between 1990 and last year, according to a study released Wednesday.

The study, funded by the Canadian government, showed that the presence of girls under the age of 18 in government forces, militias, paramilitary units, and armed opposition forces was more extensive than previously thought.

The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that there are about 300,000 child soldiers worldwide., "Based on our work, a conservative estimate would be about a third are girls, and in some cases it's 50 percent," said Dyan Mazurana, the study's co-author. Mazurana, a research fellow at Tufts University, and co-author Susan McKay, a psychologist, nurse and professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, collected data on the use and involvement of girls in armed groups worldwide and did in-depth studies of their participation in conflicts in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, and northern Uganda.

"From Sudan to Burma, from Uganda to Sri Lanka, girls are members of the armed forces, engaged in armed conflicts," said Jean-Louis Roy, president of Rights & Democracy, a nonpartisan human rights organization created by Canada's Parliament which published the study.

"The presence of girls in fighting forces is more widespread than we had previously acknowledged," he told a panel discussion that launched the study. "Their presence is a central component of the majority of today's armed conflicts."

The study found that girls became part of armed forces for a variety of reasons: recruitment, abduction, compulsory service, protection, "tax" payment, in response to local or state violence, to make money, improve education options or career prospects, to escape abuse or problems at home and to join relatives in the force. The notion that girls freely joined is contested, it said. The authors said it is inaccurate to limit the roles that girls play in armed groups to "captive wives," "sexual slaves," or "camp followers."

Girls also serve as combat soldiers, trainers for combat, slave laborers, spies, informants, messengers, cooks, porters, thieves, suicide bombers, mine clearers and child carers, they said. In northern Uganda, for example, the Lord's Resistance Army trains nearly all girls "and they are expected to fight," even when pregnant- and with babies strapped to their backs, Mazurana said.

According to the study, girls were part of fighting forces in 55 countries, involved in armed conflicts in 38 countries, and served as fighters in 34 countries.

According to the just released study, girls were part of fighting forces in 55 countries, involved in armed conflicts in 38 countries, and served as fighters in 34 countries.

"Governments are increasingly savvy that countries that use child soldiers are known as pariah states," Mazurana said. To shift the focus, governments often point to the presence of child soldiers in the forces of their opponents, but "in almost every conflict, those same governments are using child soldiers," she said.

For example, there was widespread use of girls by all forces during the war in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002, despite government denials that girls were part of government militias. "We documented hundreds and hundreds of girls involved in these forces," Mazurana said.

Similarly, during the 1976-1992 war in Mozambique, while there was always talk of girl fighters and child soldiers in RENAMO's rebel force, "the government forces, FRELIMO, were actually the first to start recruiting girls," she said. "And girls served in both of these forces as fighters, intelligence officers, spies, porters, medics and slave labor."

When conflicts end, the study said, girls are almost never included in programs to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants. Instead, girls often return to their communities - with babies born of rape- and have great difficulty being accepted. In Uganda, "about 30 per cent of the girls in the fighting forces come out of the forces with children," Mazurana said. "Currently, nothing is done to help them."

In addition, she said, nothing is done to help girls cope with "extreme actions" they were required to take in armed groups- "being forced to drink water from human skulls, eating human flesh, collecting bags of ears and hands, being forced to be a wife to a man who had over 20 other captive wives, beating your teachers or neighbors to death."

Noeleen Heyzer, head of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, said war has turned girls into mothers, killers and fighters and the international community must respond urgently and adopt new policies to help these girls get an education, training, and become productive citizens.

As Rights & Democracy's Roy said, "They were used during war; they want to be useful after it."

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 10:04 IST