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Experiences and Reintegration of Girl Soldiers. Michael Wessells Columbia University & ChildFund. Overview. Global situation regarding child soldiers Girls recruitment, experience and reintegration in Sierra Leone The ongoing needs and opportunities in Sierra Leone

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experiences and reintegration of girl soldiers

Experiences and Reintegration of Girl Soldiers

Michael Wessells

Columbia University &


  • Global situation regarding child soldiers
  • Girls recruitment, experience and reintegration in Sierra Leone
  • The ongoing needs and opportunities in Sierra Leone

- Girls’ invisibility and abandonment

- How international actors can help

- Resilience, reintegration & peacebuilding

child soldiers
Child Soldiers
  • Global problem
  • Definition—international law and the UN

Convention on the Rights of the Child

  • Age and gender
  • Human rights violations
  • Peace issue
why children
Why Children?
  • troop shortfalls & availability
  • cheap
  • obedient and manipulable
  • special tasks

- young children as spies

- teenagers as risk-takers

- sexual exploitation

entry into armed groups
Entry into Armed Groups
  • Forced recruitment—abduction
  • Nonforced recruitment


“The guerillas used to come around a lot. They came to buy milk, chickens, and bananas. I left when I was thirteen and joined the 24th front of the FARC-EP. They brought me to their camp and gave me everything. I went with them because I was really sad and unhappy. They were like my family.” (HRW, 2003)

children s decisions to join
Children’s Decisions to Join
  • Push factors

- abusive family

- poverty

- lack of education

- lack of necessities such as food, protection,

and health care

  • Pull factors

- substitute “family”; money; power; glamour;

- excitement; revenge; education and training;

ideology and meaning

Pakistani boy: “I enjoyed the task of patrolling Kabul in a latest model jeep, with a kalashnikov slung over my shoulder. It was a great adventure and made me feel big…” (Laeeq & Jawadullah, 2002)
  • Papua New Guinea boy: “Why do I feel angry, why did I join the BRA to fight? They killed my brother and uncle (an old man) when they went [to the fields]. They all the time came around to shoot so we got angry. We want to go and make payback with them, remove them from our area.” (UNICEF, 2003)
  • Sri Lankan girl: “I was older when I made that sudden decision to run away. It was not because I wanted to join the movement to fight, I wanted to get away from the marriage my parents were planning to force me into. I really got disturbed, they were forcing me.” (Keairns, 2003)
  • Sierra Leone boy: “I’m proud of what I learned—how to speak to groups, organize people, command, use weapons. I never got this from [the] government. How else am I supposed to have a future? If I had it to do again, I’d join again.”
children s roles
Children’s Roles
  • Diverse: combatant, cook, spy, porter, laborer, servant, bodyguard, assassin, sex slave, medic
  • Gendered
  • Multiple, concurrent roles
  • Dynamic and negotiated
psychosocial impact clinical and local views
Psychosocial Impact: Clinical and Local Views
  • Trauma, depression, anxiety
  • Spiritual pollution—Angola
  • Communal impact
  • Fear of reprisal
  • Stigmatization
  • Distress due to the current living situation
  • Hopelessness due to lack of positive life options
sierra leone
Sierra Leone
  • Cycles of violence
  • Government, RUF, CDF
  • Horrendous atrocities,

rights abuses

  • Mass displacement
  • Health & HIV/AIDS
  • Poverty & food insecurity
  • Among the lowest HDI ratings worldwide
girls experiences in armed groups
Girls’ Experiences in Armed Groups
  • Attack & abduction
  • Family separation, witnessing killings
  • Forced killing, exposure to and participation in violence and looting
  • Experience of attack, killing, fear of dying
  • Carrying of heavy loads, beatings
  • Sexual and gender-based violence
  • Pregnancy and birth, mothering
  • Substance abuse
  • Health problems
reintegration in ecological perspective
Reintegration in Ecological Perspective

Security Economic

Health well-being

Family Marriage


Roles Peer relations

Spiritual well-being

sealing the past facing the future
Sealing the Past, Facing the Future

Goal: Sustained reintegration, psychosocial well-being, and community-based protection of 600 sexually abused girls, girl mothers and families


  • To increase the girls’ access to Western health care and, where appropriate, traditional cleansing
  • To develop the girls’ livelihood skills and income, reducing their risk of sexual exploitation and enabling them to achieve a positive social role
  • To increase the girls’ successful participation in education
  • To strengthen community mechanisms for protection and reconciliation
program overview
Program Overview
  • Girls’ voice and empowerment
  • Assistance to girl mothers integrated with support for formerly abducted girls & other vulnerable children
  • Ecological approach that uses existing community resources—healers, chiefs, elders, women’s groups, etc.
  • Rebuilding civil society
  • Focus: 600 formerly abducted girls (10-18 years of age), who had been sexually abused during the war; 57% were mothers as a result of having been violated in the bush; inclusion of other highly vulnerable children
  • Geography:

- Northern Province: Bombali, Koinadugu, Portloko, & Tonkalili Districts

- Eastern Province: Kaihalun District

  • Time Frame: multi-year, 2001-present
community engagement
Community Engagement
  • Preliminary meetings with chiefs and elders
  • Sensitization dialogues—girls’ suffering and coercion, family and community responsibility, importance of reconciliation and reintegration
  • Group planning on behalf of girls
  • Mapping and mobilization of community resources—women’s groups, healers, health workers, social workers, youth groups
  • Girls’ selection of community mobilizers, respected by the communities
  • Girls’ Welfare Committees—composition, community facilitation of girls’ protection
  • Frequent follow-up by community mobilizers and CCF District Extension Officers
  • Ongoing sensitization and radio discussions
  • Health screening for over 80% of girls
  • Linkage Ministry of Health & Sanitation, UNICEF, & partners regarding health & hygiene
  • Support from local herbalists and healers
  • Off the Western paradigm—role of evil spirits and impurities from violation in the bush
  • Group ceremonies
  • Cleansing processes
  • Variations
  • Skills training (soap making, sewing, weaving) by community artisans
  • Training in crop production
  • Linkage with Ministry of Agriculture and

Marine Resources

  • Distribution of seeds & equipment
  • Small business training
  • Formation of solidarity groups (10 girls)
  • Loan disbursement (150,000 leones; 10% service payment; year long; monitoring by community mobilizer)
  • Family members’ participation in income generation
  • High repayment rates in Koinadugu; lower in Kaihalun
  • Loan rotation
impact assessment
Impact Assessment
  • Ongoing monitoring and evaluation
  • Narrative and quantitative indicators
  • Triangulation of diverse sources
  • Comparison of “matched” Sefafu and non-Seafafu villages
  • Follow-up with girls from the initial project
  • Emphasis on social function as defined locally
  • Group discussions with over 200 girls and over 100 elders and parents in ten communities, Koinadugu & Kaihalun Districts
key impacts
Key Impacts
  • Health:

Increased access to health screening & care

  • Community Acceptance:

Reduced stigma and isolation

  • Livelihoods:

Increased levels of household income

  • Education:

Higher rates of participation in education

community impact
Community Impact
  • Increased acceptance of abused girls by community members--“We can do everything with them now--eat, work, and do business. We do not fear them anymore.”
  • Reduced name-calling and verbal assault
  • Expressed respect for girl survivors
  • Integration: “We saw them [the girls] as troublemakers before, but now we see them as our daughters and as citizens. Now we know they suffered during the war… It’s time to put the war in the past.”
  • Collective empowerment and action: “The war was so hard here—it was every person for himself. Now we work together as one people. I tell you it is a better way…”
girls views of program impact
Girls’ Views of Program Impact
  • “We were not welcomed before. We were shunned and made to feel ashamed. Now we can provide for ourselves and our children and even give money for our family. They (the community) see we have much to contribute and accept us now.”
  • “I was called kolonko (prostitute) before. Now I am respected and held in high regard in my village because of my business accomplishments. I can buy food. I save money in my cash box.”
  • “Before, I was stigmatized and feared as a rebel and bush wife. Because of the [reintegration] program, I can be like other girls, am a respected worker, and provide for my daughter.”
key lessons
Key Lessons
  • Healing and reintegration are collective as well as individual
  • Cultural bases of coping and resilience
  • Collective planning and action increases hope, reduces external manipulation, and helps reduce feeling overwhelmed following traumatic experiences
  • Value of blending Western and local approaches.
  • Interconnection of healing, reconciliation, and economic development
  • Ongoing needs, prevention and hope