Less Visible Than Boys, But No Less Affected

8 February 2021


© UNICEF/UN0149417/Sokhin. 15 year old girls who were associated with an armed group in CAR. 2017

Every year at the United Nations Headquarters in New York and around the world we commemorate February 12 as The International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, known as Red Hand Day. This is the date, in 2002, that the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) came into force banning the participation of children under the age of 18 in hostilities: a significant milestone in the international movement to protect children in conflict.

For Plan International, a humanitarian and development organisation operating in many conflict-affected countries around the world, this day is an important opportunity to highlight the lived reality of Girls Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups – the subject of Plan International’s most recent technical note. 

The world is familiar with the term ‘child soldiers’ but not Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (CAAFAG), which encompasses the many ways children are used by armed forces and armed groups in situations of armed conflict, including as cooks, porters, for sexual exploitation and abuse, as layers of landmines, and spies – not only as combatants. It is defined by the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (2007), a set of voluntary political commitments that over 100 governments worldwide have signed onto. The use of children in any of these roles is harmful because it deprives them of their childhood, including access to education and the right to development, and puts them at risk of physical harm and emotional trauma.

In collaboration with UNICEF, Plan conducted a desk review and field research specifically on Girls Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (GAAFAG) to better understand the ways girls are recruited by armed groups, their experiences during association, and their experiences afterwards in any reintegration. Field actors often fail to account for the situation and needs of girls, including in the design of CAAFAG programs and policy, not considering the uniqueness of their experiences, their agency, and the gender-specific risks they face. Association with an armed group or armed force carries stigma, particularly for girls. The stigma is exacerbated if they are survivors of sexual abuse, if they have disabilities or if they bear children due to sexual violence. As a result, they tend to return to their communities quietly where they conceal their experiences. They are less visible than boys, but not less affected.

A major lesson that has come out of our work is to always assume that Armed Forces and Armed Groups have recruited girls, otherwise we will miss an opportunity to identify them. 

There is not enough data on girls’ association with armed forces and groups, and 2019 data from the UN-led Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) on the six grave violations against children in conflict, for example, shows that only 8% of the 4,594 CAAFAG identified in 11 countries were girls.  Previous studies estimate that girls represent anywhere between 6 to 50% of children associated but only a fraction of girls are formally identified and released. We know there are likely many more. In the 14 countries where recruitment of girls was ongoing in 2019 Plan collected information that emphasizes the uniqueness of their situations, the many reasons why girls may join an armed group, and what their experiences are like during their involvement and afterwards – including the stigma they may experience. This information provides an opportunity for field practitioners, as well as government representatives, including donors and diplomats, to more fully address girls’ concerns and prioritize their needs. 

A major lesson that has come out of our work is to always assume that Armed Forces and Armed Groups (AFAG) have recruited girls, otherwise we will miss an opportunity to identify them. The release of girls should, for example, be included in all negotiations with armed forces and groups, including girls who are married to fighters. We recommend calling for the unconditional release of children, including girls, at all phases of conflict irrespective of the presence of a peace agreement or other negotiated settlement. It is also crucial to acknowledge girls’ agency in their decision to associate with an armed force or group and in their experiences during their period of association. We should not consider them as passive victims, but rather empower them to be architects of their reintegration. Formerly associated girls and women can be empowered to sensitize girls and prevent recruitment and use.  Allies in the community have the power to change social norms and must be involved in prevention initiatives.

We have also learned that conducting context and gender analyses helps to identify barriers GAAFAGs face in accessing formal Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs and processes. We must ultimately address violence in the family and in the community and harmful gender norms and practices through peacebuilding and gender-transformative programs. Donors should also provide longer funding timeframes for CAAFAG programming – two to three years – as funding with a timeframe shorter than one year is not as effective. 

These are just some of the recommendations we share in the technical note and so, on this Red Hand Day in 2021, we welcome others to join us and be active advocates to better support girls in situations of armed conflict throughout the world.

Emergencies, Protection from violence, Child protection in emergencies