Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Plight of Girl Soldiers Overlooked

As the trial at the International Criminal Court of a Congolese rebel leader approaches, some fear that the voice of girls forced into militias may go unheard.
By Katy Glassborow
While human rights organisations welcome the fact that Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga will soon stand trial at the International Criminal Court for conscripting child soldiers, some are concerned that the scope of the official charge is inadequate.

They allege that girls who were kidnapped into Lubanga's Hema tribal militia in Ituri province will not be able to give full testimonies at the ICC hearings in The Hague because charges of sexual violence have not been included in his indictment.

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo made history in March this year when he became the first - and, so far, only - person to be arrested by the ICC and imprisoned in its cells in the capital of the Netherlands.

Lubanga, 45, is charged with "enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities" against rival Lendu tribespeople. The scale of the inter-ethnic slaughter in the remote, mineral-rich Ituri region, in the northeastern corner of the sprawling Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, has been compared in intensity, though not in scale, with that of the genocide in nearby Rwanda in 1994.

In an Ituri population of just over four million, the United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in internecine fighting since 1999, while more than half a million have been forced to flee their homes, encountering further violence in their flight.

While no one is disputing that the conscription of children into armed groups is a grave abuse that must be tackled, human rights groups and activists argue that the additional problem caused by the presence of young girls in guerrilla armies is being overlooked by the international community.

Beck Bukeni T Waruzi works with a charity in the east and northeast of the DRC that rehabilitates child soldiers, including those from Ituri's Hema, Lendu and Lendu-aligned Ngiti militias.

Waruzi told IWPR that when former girl combatants - who often have been raped and kept as sex slaves - hear there is a court in Europe called the ICC dealing with war crimes they are disappointed to find it is not also pressing charges of sexual violence.

“They feel that they are forgotten, and the court is only concerned with boys,” said Waruzi, whose Ajedi-Ka/Projet Enfants Soldats organisation is based in Uvira, on Lake Tanganyika, some 700 kilometres south of Ituri.

He said girls very specifically feel that their exploitation as sex slaves has “broken their future … [as] they cannot be married and are rejected by their communities”.

Lubanga’s next appearance - after three earlier postponements - before the ICC court, in a confirmation of charges hearing, is scheduled to happen on November 9. No one is expecting that the charges in his indictment will be widened at this stage to encompass allegations of sexual abuse.

The DRC government and World Bank agree there are currently about 30,000 child soldiers in the Congo, long torn by a cat's cradle of national and provincial wars that have taken more than four million lives since 1998. An estimated 12,500 of these child soldiers are girls, some as young as six-years-old, who become sex slaves. Peace was officially established in the Congo in 2003, but militia warfare has continued unabated in many parts of the vast country.

In a report entitled DRC: Children At War, published in October 2006, Amnesty International claims that the presence of large numbers of girls in armed groups has been “largely overlooked by the government and international community”. The report said there is "systematic abuse of these children through torture, sexual violence and ill-treatment". It said commanders and male fighters often do not feel obliged to release the girls, as they assume ownership of them, claiming them as their “wives”.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38(3), prohibits recruitment of children under the age of 15.

The DRC government launched a nationwide programme after 2003 to coordinate disarmament and demobilisation and to reintegrate fighters into civil society. However, Renner Onana, a United Nations demobilisation officer who was on the programme's drafting team, told IWPR, "We did not touch the issue of the girl soldiers, but wrongly took them as the dependants of combatants." Regrettably, he said, "it was not seen as a serious issue".

With an estimated 1,200 people still dying every day in the Congo's unresolved regional conflicts, according to International Rescue Committee mortality surveys, Waruzi said he is surprised by the narrowness of the ICC charge against Lubanga. Many people in the eastern Congo feel he is guilty of “grave crimes like killing, maiming, abducting, and sexual violence”, said Waruzi.

Waruzi said he personally finds it difficult to distinguish between the use of Congo's children as soldiers and claims of rape and sexual exploitation, since the “only motivation for the recruitment of girls is for use as sex slaves”.

Therefore, he said, he is lobbying the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Argentinian-born Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to press a separate charge of sexual slavery.

Other human rights organisations, such as REDRESS - which helps victims of torture and has recently produced an extensive report on child soldiers and the ICC - argue instead for a charge of sexual slavery to be added to the already existing indictment against Lubanga. REDRESS, with headquarters in London, argues this is necessary to help communities understand that rape is a serious crime. Its report says rape and sexual enslavement are “amongst the worst atrocities that children associated with conflict endure”. Mariana Goetz, one of the main authors of the report, told IWPR that “just prosecuting recruitment [of children as fighters] confirms the social isolation and stigma that these girls are suffering from now”.

Waruzi said that when former girl soldiers ask him about the charge against Lubanga and whether they will be asked to testify, the best that he and his co-workers can offer is "Maybe". Waruzi said girls had told him, “The whole group was using us as wives.” He said he finds it “sad and hard” to explain why the crimes they have suffered are not be taken into account by the far-away court.

Veronique Aubert from Amnesty International said the solution may not be to extend the current charge. Instead, she said, the ICC needs to make sure quite separately to “arrest someone else for sexual violence and for holding girls as sex slaves” in order to highlight the issue.

Gemma Huckerby, gender issues coordinator from the Swiss international humanitarian organisation Geneva Call, agreed, saying that girl soldiers must be treated as a separate issue. “My worry is that if Lubanga’s indictment is just widened, these aspects will not be focused on,” she said.

It is anyway likely to be difficult for children - whether male or female - to give evidence against Lubanga, because in large areas of Ituri he is still considered a hero and a leader.

Waruzi said that to expect children to testify against Lubanga is to “ask a brother to [serve as a] witness against his brother, which is not acceptable in Congolese culture”. He said his concern is that protection cannot be guaranteed by the ICC, even though children would be able to testify via remote video link so as to avoid coming face to face with Lubanga.

Christopher Hall of Amnesty International told IWPR that child witnesses in such high profile cases require special protection in how they are examined.

Alarm bells were raised at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, where some indictments for human rights abuses made it impossible for victims to testify in court. Michelle Staggs, of the War Crimes Studies Centre at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, attended sessions of the special court: she documented a decision by the judges to make evidence of sexual violence inadmissible because the prosecution had not specifically included counts of sexual violence under the indictment. The judges said that including such evidence would breach the accused’s rights, because the accused had not been given notice of these counts under the indictment.

The ensuing wrangling between judges, prosecution and defence meant that some witnesses were told they could not continue with parts of their testimony, which included descriptions of sexual violence by armed militias. In some cases they were removed from the court proceedings altogether.

Judicial decisions of this kind can re-traumatise victims or belittle the crimes they have suffered - something no-one desires for girl soldiers from the DRC should similar decisions be made by ICC judges.

In the case against Lubanga, 41 injured parties have applied to participate as “victims” in proceedings at the ICC, including girls, some of whom will double up as prosecution witnesses. Since counts of sexual violence are not included in the charge against Lubanga, the concern is that girl soldiers will be treated in the same way as women from Sierra Leone - that they will be silenced and not able to give their testimonies.

The DRC’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, DDR, programme, launched with 200 million US dollars of World Bank funding, was designed to help fighters put down their arms and return to their communities. Admitting mistakes in the initial drafting of the programme, the UN's Onana said, "We wrongly considered girl soldiers as dependents of male soldiers, so they do not have the same benefits as boy soldiers." In some areas, fewer than two per cent of the children passing through the DDR programme have been girls.

Funding has slipped away and three years down the line the DDR programme is grinding to a halt. “This issue of girl soldiers is still there, so we need more funding to deal with this specific problem,” said Onana.

The DRC is also working hard to prosecute war crimes nationally, in military civil tribunals, with NGOs and prosecutors from UN tribunals criss-crossing the country to train Congolese lawyers in the tricky art of conducting a fair trial. In March, Major Jean-Pierre Biyoyo, a former Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC, commander, was sentenced to death by a Bukavu military tribunal for the arrest and detention of children, with his sentence later reduced to a five years’ imprisonment.

Amnesty International’s report said the Biyoyo trial may have set an important precedent in the domestic prosecution of recruitment of child soldiers. Onana echoed this sentiment, but said that more rape cases need to be tried.

For girl soldiers to be seriously helped, communities need to be educated about why the abuse the girls have endured is against both international and national law. Onana said, "There is a need to educate communities, because traditionally these girls are seen as dirty.”

Communities also often assume that girls are returning with HIV/AIDS, which obviously decreases their chances of getting married. This may even lead to girls voluntarily rejoining militias and resuming relations with soldiers so that they can provide for the children they have given birth to as a result of the rapes.

In an interview with America’s National Public Radio, the deputy prosecutor of the ICC, Gambia's former attorney-general, Fatou Bensouda, said another unfortunate dimension to this problem is whether the children of girl soldiers can ever be re-integrated into their home communities.

Sometimes even the young mother herself “has difficulty accepting the child as a child she wants and loves”, said Bensouda.

Waruzi told IWPR that a major problem for Congolese trying to understand the significance of the ICC to their lives is that they have absolutely no idea how the court in The Hague works. “It is two different worlds, and there is a lack of outreach and communication about the court,” he said. Only with greatly improved public relations would people begin to understand the Lubanga prosecution.

It is clear that the ICC needs support of the Congolese people, because recent elections have proved that Lubanga still enjoys support in and beyond Ituri. Waruzi said much more needs to be done by ICC officials to educate communities about why their children - especially girls - are victims and to help them to understand the appalling nature of the crimes these girls have suffered.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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