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Special Report
Last Updated: 09/28/2006
'I Wanted to Take Revenge'
Diane Taylor

The number of girl soldiers is on the increase. Diane Taylor analyzes a new report on girls who actively choose to fight, in pursuit of sexual equality. Internationally, up to 30% of child armies are made up of girls, however in Liberia, many girls volunteer as opposed to being forced unwillingly. For many young girls, becoming a soldier means taking possession of a weapon, which means protection from the ever-present danger of being raped or a chance to escape from physical and sexual abuse at home.

An AK47 and a pair of red stilettos might, on the face of it, seem to have nothing in common. Surprisingly though, both are said to have played a significant role in recruiting young girl soldiers to fight in Liberia's civil war.

The usual view of girl soldiers - who make up between 10 and 30% of some child armies - is that they are unwilling participants in conflicts, dragged kicking and screaming into government or rebel soldier battalions. Yet according to the new report Red Shoes: Experiences of Girl Combatants in Liberia, which details research by anthropologist Irma Specht, girls' motivation for fighting is often much more complex than previously thought. Specht's report, written for the UN, adds to her previous studies of child soldiers in countries including Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Colombia, and documents the growing number of girls who are choosing to fight.

In countries such as Liberia, for instance, where poverty is endemic and most people can afford only threadbare flip-flops, a fashionable pair of shoes possesses incredible cachet. They are so covetable, in fact, that they have even helped to propel some girls on to the battlefield. As one girl soldier, Margaret, explains: "I saw the new red shoes of my friend [and] asked her where she got them from. She took me to these boys. Later on I got involved with one of them [and] when he was fighting I followed him."

Couture considerations aside, young girls may join rebel or government forces for other unexpected reasons. For many, constantly under threat of sexual violence, becoming a soldier and taking possession of a weapon is seen as a key way of protecting themselves from the ever-present danger of being raped.

Marjory, a young Liberian fighter, says it was partly the experience of having been raped and the desire to avenge this crime that led her to join up. As she explains: "The rape ... made me feel very angry. I couldn't sit still and do nothing about it. I wanted to take revenge. Not everyone who has been raped can stand up and take revenge because not everybody [has] a strong heart. So we were revenging for everybody."

A yearning for greater equality with their male peers motivates many girls. Fourteen years of civil war in Liberia has led to a society awash with guns, where violence is highly normalised. Before the war, older men were chosen as village chiefs but once hostilities took hold, young male ex-fighters were chosen instead. And, while the older men generally dealt calmly and wisely with disputes, the younger ones (used to settling disagreements through the barrel of a gun) have been noticeably less measured. Girls have often been even more marginalised than before as a result of this new, macho style of local leadership, forced into a more subservient role than they would have had before the war. Those who actively seek equal status with men have sometimes surmised - perhaps correctly - that the only way to achieve it is to prove themselves as fighters.

"What men can do, women can do even better, so I decided to join them," says Marjory. "In the army we were equal to the men. We were fighting [alongside them] and we proved to the men that we could do it."

In the Democratic Republic of Congo this desire for equality led to groups of female soldiers, known as Amazons, joining the fighting. One of them, Christine, says that the girl fighters gained a ferocious reputation: "I was with Vanessa [another girl fighter] on the frontline. If people bothered us, we killed [them]. When you are a girl you have to be harder or the men don't respect you."

Part of the Amazons' mission was to kill soldiers, including those on their own side, who raped girls and women. They expressed no regret for these killings, considering the issue one of "self-protection".

Vanessa admitted that avenging rape was not the only reason she chose to fight. She also volunteered to escape a physically and sexually abusive domestic situation. "Home life was difficult," she says. "My stepfather was a heavy drinker [and] he didn't work. He drank and then he struck us all. Mum often went to the fields, [leaving] us with him and when he drank a lot he did as if I was his wife. I left because he beat us, he drank and then he took me as his wife. I preferred to die in the war rather than to stay at home and to keep on suffering."

The fact that some girls volunteer to fight does not make the scenarios they encounter in battle, or their mortality rate, any less horrifying. The plight of child soldiers in countries from Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka has been well documented, with Save The Children estimating that at any one time there are about 300,000 child soldiers in the world, some as young as seven. They witness atrocities that would traumatise the toughest of adults: homes set on fire while civilians are still inside; people shot at point-blank range; limbs being severed.

Sometimes they are signed up to a unit of either government or rebel troops after seeing family members slaughtered at the hands of rampaging soldiers. When girls are recruited by force, "broken in" by one or more rapes, they are often used to cook and provide sexual services rather than to wield a gun or bury a landmine.

UN agencies are doing much to re-integrate young soldiers into society but Specht says that unless the complex motivation for girls' decision to fight is properly understood, these efforts are doomed to failure.

The prevailing wisdom dictates that former child soldiers should be reunited with their families, and, while this is desirable where they have been snatched from their parents, it is not appropriate for those such as Vanessa, who have fled abuse at home. It is also seen as good practice to break links between young soldiers and their commanders, but often girls (particularly those who have made a choice - however complex - to fight and have been part of all-female units with a female commander) have strong bonds of loyalty and solidarity. Commanders feel responsible for their girls and try their best to look after them once war has ended. Some girls come out of war with babies, conceived through rape or as a result of "bush marriages" - informal marriages to male combatants during the war. Any educational or training opportunities offered to them need to take their babies into account as well as the legacy of witnessing atrocities, and sometimes even perpetrating them.

Although many female former fighters have had their education severely disrupted because of conflict, they have often acquired a range of skills that could be harnessed when peace is restored: management, engineering and strategic skills, for example. After any war though, female fighters are generally pushed straight back into traditional roles. As Specht notes, one girl, an ex-commander in Liberia, was offered a course in hairdressing.

If more is done by governments and non-governmental organisations to understand female ex-fighters and to harness their skills, Specht believes that reintegration can be successful and girls and young women can contribute enormously to postwar societies. "Many of the female former combatants have shown that they have incredible resilience and strength to fight," she notes, "not only in armed groups, but ... for their future and their education. They are [prepared to fight] not only for a better life for themselves but for each other and for their children."

Which is surely a quality that war-torn societies sorely need.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Previously published 7 July 2006 by Guardian Unlimited, London
Diane Taylor is a journalist for Guardian Unlimited