A troublesome transition: Social reintegration of girl soldiers returning ‘home’
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Background: Despite increased attention the last couple of decades, child soldiering continues to be a major global challenge and it is estimated that there is approximately 300,000 child soldiers globally. One conflict which has seen the use of child soldiers is the ongoing armed conflict in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Diverting from the media image of a child soldier being a young boy with an AK47, girls often constitute a significant number of children involved with armed groups. In many armed groups in the DRC as well as in other conflict-ridden contexts, girls are estimated to count for 30-40% of child soldiers.
Article 39 in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children who are victims of war and armed conflict the right to physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. A successful social reintegration implies that former child soldiers, girls as well as boys, feel part of and are accepted by their family and community. The return ‘home’ has, however, proven to be troublesome and complicated, not least for female child soldiers who commonly experience more stigmatization than males.
Aim: The main purpose of this research is to investigate and provide insight into how former girl soldiers in eastern Congo experience their return ‘home’ from armed forces and groups. The project starts with a literature review which identifies research gaps and presents existing research knowledge on girl soldier reintegration (Paper I). I then examine whether the girls experience repair (reintegration), stigmatization or tolerance when returning ‘home’ (Paper II), particularly exploring how stigmatization and social exclusion are manifested in the everyday lives of former girl soldiers (Paper III & IV).
Method: The research design is inspired by phenomenological thinking, and is consequently qualitative in nature, aiming at describing the world as experienced by the former girl soldiers. The fieldwork took place in South Kivu, one of DRC’s eastern provinces, in January and March 2010. The two main methodological tools were individual semistructured interviews and focus group discussions. Individual interviews were carried out with 12 former girl soldiers (and two caregivers), and 17 former girl soldiers participated in three participant-led focus groups. Each focus group met twice. To gain a better overall understanding of the Congolese culture and society, particularly how traditional position of girls and women might impact on the situation of former girl soldiers, I also conducted 13 individual interviews with informants in NGOs and public bodies.
Results: Paper I: Although former girl soldiers recently have gained increased scholarly attention, their invisibility in academic literature persists. The studies that have addressed the different experiences by former boy and girl soldiers point unanimously to the inappropriateness of programs to reach and meet the needs of the girls. Thus, to secure the realization of their right to rehabilitation and social reintegration more gender-specific knowledge is required. The review identifies two sub-groups of former girl soldiers were research is particularly necessary; self-demobilized girl soldiers and forced mothers and their children. Paper I finds that these two groups face particular reintegration challenges; the self-demobilized girls as they are often excluded from reintegration programs (as well as from research), and forced mothers as returning with a child complicates the return ‘home’ and heightens stigmatization. Research also draws attention to the importance of traditional gendered expectations of women in civilian society, and that former girl soldiers may find it difficult to conform to traditional norms.
Paper II: The analysis in Paper II paints a picture of a ‘homecoming’ characterized by frequent stigmatization, some repair and little tolerance. For most girls the ‘homecoming’ was a mixed experience; the return ‘home’ evokes several types of emotions and responses also within the same family. However, while experiencing repair in one or two relationships, they speak of negative and hostile responses from the majority of family and community members. Verbal insults and name-calling is mentioned more often as coming from the community, but the girls talk more about insults, discrimination and not being loved and cared for by their family, indicating that stigmatization by family members has a particular detrimental effect.
Paper III: This paper provides a detailed description of the stigmatization experienced by former girl soldiers. Former girl soldiers are perceived as violent, as thieves, as promiscuous and as carriers of dangerous and contagious diseases. Sexualized namecalling, like Interahamwe-girl or military-girl and whore or prostitute, is commonplace. They are thought of as having bad behaviour, a military ‘spirit’ or mentality, and people fear that former girl soldiers may ‘contaminate’ other young people. Hence, attempts are made to limit their social interaction with peers. According to the girls, people are also fearful of them because they think the girls may bring soldiers to their neighbourhoods, thus seeing them as a threat to security. Stigmatization seems to be frequent even years after their return ‘home’, and perhaps surprisingly, women are identified as those most actively involved in the stigmatization of former girl soldiers in eastern Congo.
Paper IV: The last paper investigates deeper into the aspect of social exclusion and finds that social and relational exclusion takes on different forms. Some girls experience rejection by parents and close family while others are “allowed” to stay but experience that they are excluded from social interactions within the family. Two situations of exclusion from social interaction with peers are also identified; peers may be personally reluctant or afraid to socialize with the girls or adults may prohibit former girl soldiers from socializing with children and youth in the neighbourhood. Exclusion from love relationship is also commonplace, often in the form of neighbours gossiping about the girl’s past experiences, causing the young men to stay away. Being excluded from social relationships and interactions thwart the girls’ ability to re-establish a sense of belonging to their families and communities, creating a superficial co-existence rather than a genuine inclusion.
Discussion: Although some research finds little stigmatization of former child soldiers, most qualitative research which includes or solely looks at former girl soldiers coincide with the present study revealing frequent stigmatization by family and community. Similar to former girl soldiers in several other conflict and post-conflict contexts, former girl soldiers in eastern Congo are disappointed with their ‘homecoming’ and their attempt to reintegrate into family and community life. While family plays a key role and may greatly contribute to a successful social reintegration, family may also be particular detrimental if not responding in a caring manner towards girl soldiers returning ‘home’. War and armed conflict is commonly accompanied with increased levels of fear and distrust, a weakening of traditional collectivistic values and traditional social networks of mutual aid. This may clearly complicate the social reintegration of former girl soldiers. The girls in my study believe they are stigmatized because people see them as dangerous, thus as a threat to security, and because people perceive them as promiscuous, thus a threat to social norms.
These two local perceptions have clear parallels in two global discourses; that of youthful African ex-combatants as particular brutal and dangerous, and that of female soldiers as whores or sexually deviant. The discussion draws attention to how these global discourses are reproduced by media, academics and humanitarians alike, and argues that this reproduction of negative and stigmatizing portrayals often happens at the expense of nuanced research in which stories of resistance are given their rightful place. Misleading and exaggerated perceptions of former girl soldiers may have negative implications for how the girls are perceived and treated by their families and communities, thus fuelling local stigmatization. It may also negatively impact on the design and implementation of reintegration programs aiming to assist the girls’ transition to civilian life.