Fighting to Survive: A Report on Female Former Child Soldiers Living in Rwanda
Heather Baldwin, Africanist Doctoral Candidate Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Moderator: Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity.
"The overall message that I got from these extraordinary young women is that they are survivors, and that they do what is necessary to stay alive in extreme circumstances," concluded Heather Baldwin, Africanist Doctoral Candidate Fellow, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, commenting on the plight of female former child soldiers in Rwanda. Baldwin conducted one and a half years of field research predominantly in Kudoda province in northwest Rwanda in which she examined the conditions that led seven young women to join, stay in, and eventually leave Interhamwe rebel armies fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Baldwin set the stage for her presentation by reviewing the history of events in Rwanda including the 1994 genocide and the 1996 war of the infiltrators in which Rwandan Interhamwe rebels, influenced by the civil war in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, began infiltrating the Northwest border of Rwanda, including Kudoda, in an attempt to overthrow the Rwandan government. Human rights violations in Kudoda during the second war were immense. Baldwin comments that the young women "were living in circumstances where the army seemed to be the best of all the bad choices with which they were faced."
Of seven young women who agreed to be interviewed by Baldwin, four joined the army after fleeing Rwanda, two while still in Rwanda, and one joined the Gens D'Armes prior to the 1994 genocide. They were all between the ages of twelve to eighteen when they joined, predominantly for reasons of food and shelter shortage, death of parents or spouses, and the fear of being killed. Baldwin argues that while the girls did not have any good choices during the war, "they were able to survive in a time of extreme instability and violence by making choices that ensured their protection and safety." This is demonstrated by the fact that the young women ensured food and protection for themselves and their children by joining the army; commodities that were almost unobtainable out of the army.
The young women demonstrated similar rational decision-making processes by leaving the army because of discontent with the living conditions and levels of work, and rumors of safety in Rwanda. Five of the girls successfully escaped and returned to Rwanda through UNHCR services as refugees. Two were caught by the Rwanda Patriotic Army and returned to Rwanda through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). However, all returned without going through any formal demobilization process.
Baldwin highlighted the fact that most information on child soldiers tends to focus on male abductees below twelve years of age while female child soldiers remain invisible and their agency to choose to join the armed forces is largely ignored. Baldwin argued that while there exists a generally low estimation of the role of women in the army and their need for reintegration services, it should be noted that "none of the young women in this research were allowed to leave. They either had to escape or were captured." This indicates, perhaps, that the girls were too valuable to the armies for their commanders to let them go. Consequently, Baldwin concluded that attempts to minimize the importance of young women in the armed forces, and to convince the communities that the youth were forced to join the army, may actually serve to diminish the self-worth, autonomy, and confidence of these young women in their own ability to make choices to survive in extremely difficult circumstances.
Baldwin's presentation stimulated discussion on the methodology of the research. Additional questions were raised concerning the ethnic identity, education levels and stigma experienced by the girls as a result of their association with the army. Baldwin explained that most of the girls suffered from feelings of isolation and rejection due to the fact that they had children out of wedlock, and thus, were considered prostitutes by their community. Through the question and answer session, the difficulties of this type of research were recognized, while Baldwin was commended for the richness and humanity her research brought to the issue of child soldiering.
Georgina Petrosky, Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, ext. 4083
Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity