In The DRC, Girls Are Forced To Fight In Wars, Then Shunned From Their Home For Being 'Bad'

If you are anything like me, when you think about child soldiers, you immediately think of boys. Boys running around with guns on their backs in a male-dominated conflict zone, forced to do terrible things that no adult should have to do—let alone a child.

But what about the girls? What happens to them when the fighting starts? Who is there to look out for them if they manage to escape the violence? The narrative, like so many others, obscures the role and needs of girls.

Child Soldiers International (CSI) recently released a report, which says that up to 40 percent of the children associated with armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are girls. That's just under half of the children captured, exploited, and forced into the worst forms of child labor.

Some are abducted and others join to escape home, to avenge the death of others, or as a desperate means of survival. For some, joining an armed group is a means of empowerment in a society where women and girls are undervalued and have limited options.

The reality is that these girls are raped, abused, forced into "marriage" and/or domestic work to support the brutal fighting of the militia. They are soldiers, cooks, porters, messengers, informants or spies, sexual slaves, or anything else their commanders want.

But these girls are far from weak. They are strong. They endure. Some even succeed in escaping, or are released by the armed group. But sadly, what awaits them when they return home is not a loving embrace.

Instead, often these girls are subject to the label and stigma of being "bad". It is a terrible reality that the community does not know how to welcome back a girl whose life has taken such a dramatic turn from their initial hopes for her.

And it doesn't stop there. The development community clearly must do better in supporting efforts to end the child soldier scourge.

The CSI report found that only 7 percent of girls who returned to their village received support reintegrating back into their communities. That means that the remaining 93 percent, who witnessed the most awful atrocities, must then face the rejection and stigma from their community alone.

What's more, the girls who have received help are being taught skills like sewing or cooking. While that sounds like a good idea, no one ever gets over the trauma of war by only learning new skills. What these girls need is psychological help, counselling, emotional support and to be free from the fear of being judged.

As we mark Red Hand Day or International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers today (February 12), I can't help but think, "We have failed the girls in the DRC."

Child soldiers
This picture taken 26 January 2006 shows a Congolese boy, former rebel soldier, at a center for demobililized war children in Rutshuru, in the North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent reports suggested only 7 percent of girls who returned to their village after they joined armed groups received support reintegrating back into their communities. JOSE CENDON/AFP/Getty Images

Violence in the DRC has been on the rise since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate in 2016, with a delayed election scheduled for December.

A survey of aid agencies polled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found the crisis in Congo to be the "most neglected" of 2017, outranking even Yemen and the Central African Republic.

But the good news is that all is not lost.

Alongside fantastic organisations like CSI, World Vision has been in the DRC since 1984. We provide long-term psychosocial support, counselling, and emotional help to girls and boys who have experienced some of the worst forms of violence in the region. We help their communities understand what they've been through to support the girls' reintegration back into their village. Through our work, we restore dignity and hope.

14-year-old Hanna (not her real name) is an example of that hope. Before the crisis that swept Kasai Province in the DRC two years ago, Hanna lived in a village with her mother and two older brothers.

She was in another village, looking after her sister's children when the militia came. Her sister had been killed and her brother-in-law and the children fled, but she had no escape. She was given the option of death or joining the militia group. She chose the latter and was trained to fight and was shot numerous times. She is now at a center for demobilized children, still limping on crutches from her wounds. Her hope is to be reunited with her mother and to return to school.

Clearly, more needs to be done. And this will take a concerted effort, by governments and stakeholders across the world, to change our rehabilitation focus and make sure girls are written back into this narrative.

Amy Johnson is World Vision UK's Political Advocacy Officer. You can follow her on Twitter.