Poor girls take arms
Dozens of armed groups in eastern Congo prey on locals and exploit mineral reserves, and girls forced to join militia groups for food, money and protection.
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 on Monday.
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 programmes 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.
"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 former girl soldiers.
Most of the 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.
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