Since 2012, we have often written about RET’s presence in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where we work with former adolescent soldiers. Their reintegration into civilian life, after having been enrolled into illegal armed groups, is a long and complex process. By 2016, over 500 under-aged soldiers had reclaimed their lives after taking part in the RET programme. Our approach is truly holistic and we prefer to work intensely, but with fewer participants at a time than most other programmes. By doing so we ensure their durable reintegration into their communities and life. In these last five years, we have had only 2 former combatants return to fighting. The positive effects of these reintegrations echo throughout the affected communities long after the youth have left the armed groups.
However, there is a certain cohort of under-aged soldiers we would like to draw your attention to in this article: young women.
The images of young boys parading large guns designed to be carried by men have become the terrifying symbols of many conflicts and fragile environments. The hope and playfulness of children and youth crushed to create agents of violence may be one of the darkest realities human communities have to confront. What we often fail to grasp is that young boys are not the only ones targeted by armed groups. Young women, though not as numerous, are also preyed upon to fulfil different, but perhaps more degrading roles. They are the cleaners, the cooks, sometimes the fighters and very often, the sex slaves. Their lives are needlessly ruined, maybe even more so than the ones of the boys.
Understanding their experience and how to help them is necessary to have a more complete picture of Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programmes of the kind RET is engaged in. This is important as DDR is one of the most challenging ventures the international community, governments, civil society and specifically, NGOs can engage in. It is, therefore, also a measure of the commitment organisations have to serious conflict resolution and long-term change.
Nyota* (15 years old), Borauzima* (16 years old), Mapenzi* (16 years old) and Kyavira* (14 years old) are four of the girls whom we have helped get back to a stable and safe life in their community. The testimonies they brought back from their experience in illegal armed groups help us understand the roles young women play and the daily hardships they must confront.
During their time in the armed groups they were ordered to cook and clean. They were used as messengers and often provided the menial labour necessary for such organisations to function when they are not engaged in combat. These maintenance roles, which represent very hard labour, must not hide the fact that young women and girls are very often also used as sex slaves. This was the case of Nyota, Borauzima, Mapenzi and Kyavira.
These roles place young women at the very low end of the social hierarchy of the groups and open the door to every sort of abuse. All four explained that they were routinely victims of physical violence. Pushed, dragged on the floor, shaken and forced into unwanted sexual acts. This was made worse by psychological aggression. Seen as objects to be exploited, they reported being rejected and isolated, terrorised and deprived of any sort of affection. Such traumas during adolescence are even more damaging than their combined physical wounds.
Simply getting young women out of these groups is by no way enough. The support they need to rebuild their lives is complex and requires skilled professionals. Upon arriving at RET’s Centre for Transit and Orientation (CTO) they expressed feeling fear, anger and anxiety, coupled with very low self-esteem. They had nightmares and difficulties controlling their emotions, as well as, eating disorders such as anorexia. They had lost their social skills and retreated into solitude, sadness and despair. In order to address all the hurdles separating them from a safe and integrated life in their communities, RET’s programme worked with them in four general steps.
To begin with, once the four young women had left the armed groups and arrived at RET’s CTO, there was a need to prepare them for the activities and services to which they would have access. It is important for any participant to start by having them understand that what they have lived through is not acceptable as “normal”. They must accept that it is not their fault and that these traumas can be overcome. These young women also need to know what type of support they will be receiving and understand that their confidentiality is guaranteed. Protection mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that these young women are actually safe and perceive this environment as a safe haven.
Once reassured and aware of the opportunities proposed to them, they then benefited from health check-ups, hygiene kits and medical services through our specialised partners and local hospitals.
The third step was to offer them professional psychosocial support. This was done through activities such as individual counselling sessions, participative games, sports, group therapy, theatre, discussion groups or support sessions with the host families who had opened their doors to them. All these activities aimed at increasing their resilience and prepared them to plan for their future. This paved the way to the fourth step: their socio-economic integration into their communities.
Once Nyota, Borauzima, Mapenzi and Kyavira had started to recover, they were led through an orientation process, which helped them to decide on how they wanted to shape their future. They were presented with the opportunity to either go back to school and pursue their studies, or attend vocational trainings to practice a trade. They all decided to learn to become tailors and, thus, received a basic training and were introduced to professionals to learn from their experience. Once their training was completed, they were offered economic reintegration kits. They continue until this day to practice their trade and to benefit from regular follow-up from our RET team to make sure their reintegration remains a success.
The case of these young women shows us that leaving the armed groups was just the beginning. Helping them repair their broken lives is a much longer process, which involves time, effort and many forms of intervention and know-how. Of course, the RET programme also works with young men and boys. It equally includes many awareness-raising activities for the community to avoid future recruitments and create the conditions in which, hopefully, child soldiers will one day be less and less a sad reality in unstable and fragile environments. To get there, however, it is important to acknowledge that young boys are not the only ones who suffer and that behind the images of them holding guns are young women who suffer just as much, if not more.
We, of course, wish to thank our RET colleagues in the field for their dedication day-to-day on the ground in ensuring that these programmes are designed and implemented in the most effective manner possible. We also thank the Government of DRC for welcoming RET and for their collaboration and Luxembourg’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Government of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office for their support to out programme in DRC throughout the years. The lives of all these young women and men could not have been changed without the generous support of all these key RET stakeholders.