Lack of school drives girls into armed groups in Congo’s east

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Girls in con­flict-rav­aged east­ern Demo­cratic Republic of Congo are join­ing armed groups be­cause they can­not af­ford to go to school, while for­mer girl sol­diers strug­gle to re­turn to class amid stigma from their com­mu­ni­ties, a charity said yes­ter­day. Many girls in the re­gion join mili­tia groups to ob­tain food and money, to seek pro­tec­tion against vi­o­lence, or be­cause their fam­i­lies can­not af­ford to pay their school fees, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Bri­tain-based Child Sol­diers In­ter­na­tional (CSI).

East­ern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups that prey on lo­cals and ex­ploit min­eral re­serves. Mil­lions died be­tween 1996 and 2003 as a re­gional con­flict caused hunger and disease. Around a third of all chil­dren in armed groups in the coun­try are es­ti­mated to be girls, who are of­ten mar­ried off to mil­i­tants and are vul­ner­a­ble to abuse and rape, ac­tivists say. “It is deeply shock­ing that, be­cause their fam­i­lies can­not af­ford to pay school fees, some girls see join­ing an armed group as their only op­tion, and de­cide to throw them­selves in harm’s way,” said Is­abelle Guitard, di­rec­tor of pro­grams at CSI.

While pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion is free and com­pul­sory by law, most schools in Congo charge fees for books and uni­forms, CSI said. “De­spite the hor­rific abuse the girls go through while with armed groups, it is the re­jec­tion from their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties which dis­tresses many of them the most,” Guitard told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion by phone from Lon­don. While civil so­ci­ety groups have had some suc­cess in get­ting boys out of armed groups and into rein­te­gra­tion pro­grams, this shame and fear of re­jec­tion back home has kept many girls in the bush, ac­cord­ing to CSI’s re­port.

“If we leave the group, we’re go­ing to be tar­geted ... so many girls ac­cept and con­tinue to live with their bush hus­band,” said one of the 150 for­mer girl sol­diers in­ter­viewed by CSI. Most of these girls said go­ing to school was the best way to re­gain ac­cep­tance from their com­mu­ni­ties, and that it helped them to deal with trauma suf­fered while with the armed groups. CSI said it was work­ing with lo­cal part­ners to help for­mer girl sol­diers go back to school, pro­vide catch-up ses­sions and lit­er­acy classes for those who have never been ed­u­cated or who are too old to start.— Reuters

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