Girls in War: Sex Slave, Mother, Domestic Aide, Combatant

"The attackers tied me up and raped me because I was fighting. About five of them did the same thing to me until one of the commanders who knew my father came and stopped them, but also took me to his house to make me his wife. I just accepted him because of fear and didn't want to say no because he might do the same thing to me too." This is the testimony of a young girl of 14 from Liberia as told to the Machel Review in a focus group conducted jointly by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG/CAAC).

This story shows how vulnerable girls are in armed conflict. Actually, they can be affected by war in five different ways. Firstly, they are often direct victims of violence -- killed, maimed or sexually violated as war crimes are committed against them. Secondly, they can be recruited and used as combatants for fighting in the battlefield. Thirdly, as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), they remain in insecure environments, often deprived of basic amenities. Fourthly, they are frequently trafficked and exploited, as perpetrators abuse their vulnerability. Finally, when they become orphans, some of them have to manage child-headed households, eking out a living for themselves and their siblings.

Direct violence

The number of children who are victims of direct violence, especially killings, has greatly increased in the last few years. Many have lost their lives in the confrontation between terrorism and counter terrorism. We have seen the phenomenon of children being used as suicide bombers and we have seen children as victims of aerial bombardment, a part of what is euphemistically called "collateral damage".

In Afghanistan I met Aisha, a girl whose home had been destroyed during an air raid which killed many of her family members, and whose school had been attacked by insurgents opposing education for girls. But Aisha was determined to go on with her studies so that she could become a school teacher.

Sexual violence

Girls are often raped or violated in situations of conflict. Raping girls and women is often a military strategy aimed at terrorizing the population and humiliating the community. At other times, the climate of impunity in war zones leads to rape and exploitation by individual soldiers who know they will not be punished. Eva was a young girl I met in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She and her friend were walking to school when they were waylaid by armed members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda. They were taken to the camp, repeatedly raped, compelled to live in a state of forced nudity and assigned to domestic chores for the members of the group. Eva finally escaped and found shelter in Panzi hospital, a refuge for victims of sexual violence, where she found out that she was pregnant. She was 13 years old. When I met her, Panzi hospital was taking care of her child while she was attending school. They were trying to trace her family, even though they knew that girls who are victims of rape are often shunned by their next of kin.

Girl soldiers

Increasingly, girls are being recruited into fighting forces as child soldiers. Some are abducted and have to play the dual role of sex slave and child combatant. This was particularly true in the wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia. In other cases, girls join the fighting forces for a multitude of reasons because they identify with the ideology, they want to run away from home or they have no other option for survival. Maria was a former girl child soldier whom I met in Colombia. She joined the rebel groups because her brothers had joined before her. Subjected to domestic violence at home, she ran away. She fought with the rebels and was then captured during one of the confrontations. Today she feels very lost. She does not want to go back home and she feels she has neither the education nor the skills to survive alone. When I met her, she was being taken care of by a foster parent. She felt boys were frightened of her because of her past. She also told me that many girls who had left the movement finally end up in sex work as a survival strategy.

Internally displaced

Eighty per cent of the world's refugees and internally displaced are women and children. Displaced children are perhaps one of the most vulnerable categories. In many parts of the world they are separated from their families while fleeing, becoming orphans overnight. And living in camps, they are often recruited into the fighting forces. Displaced children also suffer from high rates of malnutrition and have little access to medical services. Many girls are victims of violence in the camp or when they leave the camp to gather firewood and other necessities. For those who advocate for the rights of displaced children, the first priority should be security. The objective is to ensure that children are safe, protected from sexual violence and recruitment, and that there are child-friendly spaces in the camp. The second priority is education. Recently, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have partnered to advocate strongly that education is an integral part of emergency response and not a luxury development. This was one of the key messages of the General Assembly debate on Education in Emergencies, in March 2009. It is important to plan for schools and play areas for children as the camp is constructed and provisions are made for families to be settled. It gives children a sense of normalcy and routine when they live in the camps.
Trafficking and sexual exploitation

Another concern we have for girl children in situations of armed conflict is that they are often trafficked and sexually exploited. At the international level, commentators have always pointed to "waves" of trafficking: that is, particular groups being trafficked in large numbers at a particular time. These waves often occur in areas of armed conflicts; women flee in large numbers, and being sex workers is their only survival strategy. They become victims of terrible exploitation by ruthless international criminal gangs. So many of these stories have been chronicled and a great deal of effort has been made over the last two decades to tackle the phenomenon. Nevertheless, the ground realities of conflict still lead to the sexual vulnerability of girls and women. Our own peacekeepers have not been immune to these situations. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has made it a priority through their zero tolerance policy and code of conduct and discipline to ensure that this type of activity ceases and that peacekeepers will only be seen as protectors.

Orphans and child-headed households

The terrible toll of war also makes many children into orphans overnight. In many parts of the world, we are seeing child-headed households where children have to fend for themselves as well as for older children. This happens especially to girl children who have to take over the role of parents. Parentless children often live in deplorable conditions such as broken-down buildings with leaky roofs, or no roofs at all. They sleep together under torn plastic sacks and cook with old rusty cans and broken pottery. They are susceptible to all manner of diseases and their situation is terribly vulnerable and heartbreaking. UN agencies are trying ways of giving these children a future without institutionalizing them in centres. It is their aim to keep children in the community and make it the responsibility of the community to take care of its children. Through schemes that find foster homes and foster mothers, they hope to let the children enjoy the benefit of family life.

The international tribunals and the fight against impunity

How has the international community responded to these devastating descriptions of what girl children suffer during war time? Recently things are slowly beginning to change, especially in the fight against impunity. The first breakthrough for children was the establishment of international tribunals which began to hold perpetrators accountable for international crimes. The cases before the tribunals of the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda that dealt with sexual violence, created a framework of international jurisprudence that will help us in the future. Individual women found justice, and there is always the deterrent effect that cannot be measured in an empirical manner. Recently, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found several commanders of the Revolutionary United Front guilty of 16 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including conscription and enlistment of children under 15 into the fighting forces. The setting up of the International Criminal Court was the culmination of this trajectory. Their first case, the Thomas Lubanga case, involved the recruitment and use of children as child soldiers, strengthening the cause for children. Our office submitted an amicus curiae to the court in that case, arguing that girl children should be brought into the ambit of protection. We advocate for the young, abducted girls who play multiple roles in camps, to receive the protection of the law against being recruited, used, as well as forced to participate in the hostilities. We hope to get our day in court to argue this point of view so that the enormous suffering of girl children does not remain invisible.

Involvement of the Security Council

In the area of children in armed conflict, another mechanism that has begun to chip away at impunity is Security Council resolution 1612. The resolution, passed in 2005, created a Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. It also established a monitoring and reporting mechanism involving a Task Force at the national level made up of all the UN agencies, assigned to report on the violations. The Task Force is chaired by either the Resident Co-coordinator or the Special Representative and is often co-chaired by UNICEF. Through this mechanism, OSRSG/CAAC receives bimonthly reports on grave violations against children in war zones. The Security Council process is informed by the Annual Report of the Secretary-General to the Council which lists parties that recruit and use child soldiers. Resolution 1612 recommends the prospect of targeted measures against persistent violators of children's rights. The hope in 2009 is to extend these measures, beyond the recruitment and use of child soldiers, to include sexual violence against children, such that those who persistently use sexual violence in war be listed, shamed and face the possibility of sanctions. Having received the full support of the UN system, it is hoped that Member States, especially those in the Security Council, will help our office deliver on this promise.

In a world where there is so much abuse against women and children, one may become cynical about these small steps that the international community has begun to take to fight impunity, but we must not underestimate their effects. Recently, I was in the Central African Republic and met three generations of women in one family who had been raped when Jean-Pierre Bemba's troops attacked the capital, Bangui. They were getting ready to go to The Hague to testify against him. Their elation at the possibility of justice, and their gratitude that these things have come to pass has convinced me that we are on the right path. Grave violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity must be taken seriously, so that the culture of impunity that often hangs over warfare be broken.

Reintegration of former child soldiers

Another area where the international community can help is the field of rehabilitation and reintegration. Reintegrating children affected by war is a major task facing Governments, UN agencies and NGO partners working in the field. The Paris Principles give us a framework on how to reintegrate children associated with armed groups, but these principles are also a guide to reintegrating all children. The call for community-based programming that works with the child, while developing the family and the community in an inclusive manner, must be the starting point for child-based programming. And yet, some children need special attention. Research shows that children who were forced to commit terrible crimes and children who were victims of sexual violence need special care and attention. Girl children often have different needs from boys. Treating children as important individuals while, at the same time, developing the community in a holistic manner, is the only sustainable way forward.

Finally we cannot even begin to speak of the psychological toll that war takes on children. When I was in Gaza, I went to a school and entered a classroom of nine year-old girls, who were drawing in an art class. I moved from one to the other, and then I just looked down at one girl's drawing, Ameena's. She had drawn a house and she explained to me that the two figures in the house were her mother and herself. Above the house there was a mangled object which I gather was a helicopter gunship; to the left of the house there was an imposing looking tank and to the right of the house, a soldier. All these were firing at the home. Her sad, dull eyes on her beautiful face told the rest of the story. Meeting the day to day reality of war is a terrible calling for all of my colleagues working in the field. But rebuilding the shattered lives of children is an even more daunting task; to make them smile again, care again and live with purpose is the challenge of the hour.