By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR (Thomson Sun News Foundation) – Stigma and rejection from their communities after returning home from armed groups are driving former girl soldiers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo back into the militias, where they are prey to violence and sexual abuse, a charity said on Monday.
For many girls in the conflict-ravaged east of the country, the pain of being spurned by their families and friends as survivors of rape was worse than the violence itself, according to a report by Britain-based Child Soldiers International (CSI).
“It is better to die there than come home and be rejected,” said one of the 150 former girl soldiers interviewed by CSI.
Eastern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups that menace civilians and exploit mineral reserves. About a third of child soldiers are estimated to be girls, who are often married off to militants, abused and raped, activists say.
While most girl soldiers in the vast central African nation are abducted by armed groups, others join voluntarily to obtain food and money, to seek protection against violence, or because their families cannot afford to pay their school fees, CSI says.
Yet despite witnessing violence and suffering sexual abuse, some girls in militias do not want to return home for fear of shame and stigma, while many of those who do so end up rejoining the armed groups, said Sandra Olsson, programme manager at CSI.
“It is shocking to see that stigma is one of the main reasons reintegration fails so badly for these girls,” she told the Thomson Sun News Foundation by phone. “Even after being home for years, many still suffer from exclusion and discrimination.”
“We need to ensure these girls are accepted by their communities, rather than being frozen out,” Olsson said. “If they don’t receive support after returning home, they won’t make it … they will not survive,” she added.