GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Queen Alphonsine wants to go back to school. She does not have many years to go to complete her secondary education, she says, but her parents won’t pay. Since she returned home from “the bush,” Queen is not their priority any more.
Queen, 18, lives in the Quartier Majengo, a poor neighborhood on the periphery of Goma in eastern DRC. At the age of 13, she ventured out into the hills of Masisi Territory.
In DRC, “going to the bush” means joining an armed group. For two years, Queen fought in the ranks of the People’s Alliance for Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS).
The APCLS, under the leadership of the self-proclaimed General Janvier Buingo Karairi, obtains revenue from the small gold and cassiterite mines in the areas it controls. Similar to other rebel groups in Congo, the APCLS taxes locals for transportation and goods.
The group is one of the many armed militias who undermine the authority of the Congolese state in North Kivu. NGO International Alert says the group is composed of fighters who were unsatisfied with previous peace processes and who say they are “defending the integrity of the national territory against all aggression from outside.” With anti-Rwandan and anti-Tutsi rhetoric, its commanders have refused to take part in further negotiations.
Unlike many other girls, Queen was not abducted or forcibly recruited. She joined of her own free will, encouraged by her friends. “I was convinced by others to join. They told me I would be a soldier, and I liked the idea.”
“I wanted to learn how to use a weapon. I knew we would have to go to combat,” she says.
Initially, Queen’s job was to cook and serve food to the soldiers. It took her three months to learn how to shoot a rifle. Later, when she was needed in the front line, she took up arms and fought.
“I didn’t know against who or why,” she admitted.
The APCLS was surrounded by other armed groups such as the Maï-Maï Cheka in the Walikale Territory, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, composed of Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled their home country during its civil war, and the Nyatura, formed of Congolese Hutus.
When asked if she was afraid of getting killed, she says her fear faded away when she was given a talisman for protection. “I was guarded by the ancestors. No one could kill me. The amulet was bullet proof,” she says.
The Girl Soldiers of DRC
After two years in the bush, the government urged rebel groups to stop fighting and release their combatants. Queen was released back into her community in 2014.
Freeing girls from armed rebels is often a difficult task. Since the adoption of the Child Protection Law in 2009, child recruitment has been criminalized in the DRC. A United Nations report showed that between 2009 and 2015, only 7 percent of demobilized children in the country were girls. Half of the girls were younger than 15 when they were recruited.
A quarter of the girls reported they had joined an armed group because they were under pressure from families or community members. The majority of the girls were used as cooks, domestic workers and porters, but some were also combatants and armed escorts to commanders.
Although there is evidence that girl soldiering continues, it is difficult to be precise about the number of girls under 18. The U.N. report suggests that girls comprise 30-40 percent of the child soldiers in DRC today.
Living With Stigma
Queen says living in the bush had not been much different from the life she had led earlier in her community, where she grew up in extreme poverty.
But when she returned, she found being a former girl soldier carried a deep stigma. She was ostracized by her family when she returned home. Her community shunned her.
“People are afraid of me, they know I’ve been in an armed group, and now they fear me. I don’t have any friends,” she says.
After being rejected by their family, girls often end up moving out. When Queen turned 16, she decided to leave her parents’ house, where she felt excluded, and found a place to live in the suburbs of Goma.
Sandra Olsson, the program manager of Child Soldiers International, says that not enough is being done to address girls’ needs when they return home. “There has been very little focus on girls. Their needs do differ from the boys.”
“The fact they are treated really badly when they come home is often because they are perceived to have lost their ‘value’ for being in the bush,” she says.
In 2016, Child Soldiers International conducted a study to assess the effectiveness of interventions in demobilizing, recovering and reintegrating girl soldiers in eastern DRC. More than a third of the 150 girls interviewed had never had any support, while the other two-thirds received brief care in the form of a “reintegration kit” – a hygiene and first basic package with soap and clothes.
Some of the training that was offered for income-generating activities was interrupted, lasting no more than two months.
“What surprised us was to know that the source of the girls’ deepest emotional suffering was not the terrible experiences from their time with the armed group but the way they were treated when they went back home,” Olsson says.
Girls frequently face rejection and exclusion, especially if they get pregnant in the bush. “That’s very harsh for girls who have already been through terrible times,” she says.
The stigma girls suffer is worse than boys both in intensity and frequency, says Milfrid Tonheim, a researcher at Norway’s University of Bergen. “Girls transgressed their gender roles because they have been in a military environment, which is traditionally seen as a masculine domain. They are not seen as proper women any longer,” she says.
Tonnheim suggests that demobilization programs for child ex-combatants should focus on family mediation.
“You need to have a family approach and not only help the girls individually. There’s a need to create a family atmosphere where they can be accepted,” she says.
Engaging community leaders and providing trusted listeners for ex-combatants are some of the recommendations put forward in a practical guide from Child Soldiers International, with the collaboration of dozens of NGOs working in the DRC.
Getting Girls Back to School
Experts agree that girls who have been in the bush usually encounter more difficulties in going back to school, just as Queen did. Tonheim’s research has found that schooling is often the preferred choice for returned girls, but very few reintegration programs have sufficient funds to support them.
“Girls are struggling more than boys. We see that the social value of school goes beyond the actual education. It means so much more for them,” Olsson says.
Queen still hopes she can make some income to afford her studies. “I just wish to go to school,” she says.
“People may think I became brutal and aggressive, but I will never fight again. I am a normal person.”
The reporting trip to DRC was funded by the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Consortium and the Reporting Right Livelihood 2017 Journalism Programme.