Monday, February 23, 2009

Girl Soldiers in Sierra Leone

(Many thanks to IntLawGrrls for inviting me to contribute this guest post on the issue of girl soldiers, on which another guest also has posted.)

The issue of child soldiers has become an issue of global concern and has moved to the forefront of political, humanitarian and academic agendas. An estimated 250,000 soldiers under the age of 18 are fighting in conflicts in over 40 countries around the world. While there is ample descriptive evidence of the conditions and factors underlying the rise of child soldiery in the developing world, most of the literature has portrayed this as a uniquely male phenomenon, ultimately neglecting the experiences and perspectives of girls within fighting forces.

In this posting, I’d like to highlight a few of the findings from my work on girl soldiers in Sierra Leone. My work has aimed to trace girls’ perspectives and the experiences of girls as victims, participants, and resisters of violence and armed conflict. These findings have been published (many with my colleague and co-author, Dr. Richard Maclure) in several journals, including International Journal of Human Rights, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Journal of Youth Studies, Anthropologica, and Security Dialogue.
► First, whether in the heat of conflict or within postwar programming, girls are, for the most part, rendered invisible and marginalized. During conflict, the roles that they play are frequently deemed peripheral and insignificant by governments, national and international NGOs, policy-makers, and program developers. In the aftermath of war, girls continue to be marginalized within the realms of education, economics, and are frequently discriminated against within formal disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes, as well as within the context of their families and communities.
► Second, in spite of this profound invisibility and marginalization, girls are fundamental to the war machine – their operational contributions are integral and critical to the overall functioning of armed groups.
► Third, girls in fighting forces contend with overwhelming experiences of victimization, perpetration, and insecurity. During conflict, girls are subjected to grave violations of their human rights through forced recruitment, killing, maiming, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, abduction, forced marriage, and increased exposure to HIV/AIDS. Many are also forced to participate in brutal acts of violence. In the aftermath of conflict, girls arguably bear a form of secondary victimization through socio-economic marginalization and exclusion, as well as the ongoing threats to their health and personal security.
► Finally, girls in fighting forces are not simply silent victims, but active agents and resisters during armed conflict. Girls’ made remarkable attempts to defend and protect themselves during situations of severe violence and insecurity, as well as efforts to bring about change for themselves and by themselves. Challenging the predominant portrayals of girls as emblematic victims, girls attempted to avoid, minimize, or resist wartime abuses, patriarchal power structures, and the culture of violence that surrounded them.
In light of these research findings, an alternative approach is essential -- one that gives due regard to the ways in which girls in fighting forces are perceived, represented, and conceptualized.
Rather than focusing solely on girls’ vulnerability and victimization, it is essential also to direct our attention to their self-efficacy, resilience, and skills. Moreover, given their significant presence and multiple roles within fighting forces, girls’ experiences and perspectives should be considered as central and indispensable to understandings and analyses of war and political violence, and not regarded as peripheral or, unwittingly or wittingly, rendered invisible.

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