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Study: Thousands of girls fighting on front lines
Updated: 2004-03-04 09:30

Tens of thousands of young girls are fighting on front lines across the developing world and not just serving as cooks and sex slaves to male soldiers, according to a study released on Wednesday.

"There is a tendency to overclassify girls in the countries where we worked as sex slaves when in fact they are more often front-line fighters," said Dyan Mazurana, one of the study's authors.

Mazurana and fellow U.S.-based researcher Susan McKay wrote "Where are the Girls?" after three years interviewing more than 300 girls under 18 in northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Mozambique. Their study, funded by the Canadian government, also looked at wars from Nepal to the Middle East to Colombia.

Girls are in battle and also in domestic service as cooks, a job that often includes providing sex on demand to male fighters, Mazurana said in an interview on the sidelines of a meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

To help such girls, who are usually kidnapped and forced into service, international aid agencies must address their often-hidden presence and role as front-line fighters, the study said.

In northern Uganda, children make up about 80 percent of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, and up to half of those are girls, Mazurana said.

"The majority of the girls in northern Uganda, in the LRA, are 10 to 13 years old," she said.


Two weeks ago, the LRA, which says it wants to win a better life for Uganda's northern Acholi people but has never clearly stated its demands, killed as many as 230 people in a raid on a camp for Ugandans left homeless by the 17-year insurgency.

Girls were active in such raids, Mazurana said.

"People are not willing to join the LRA and as a result it is much more efficient for them to simply capture people and force them to participate," she said. "An accurate estimate is 50,000 people abducted by the LRA."

"In sub-Saharan Africa, if we want to understand the kind of war economies and what is at the foundation of these conflicts and how they operate, we absolutely have to pay attention to the role of youth -- boys and girls."

In Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, which ended two years ago, 22,500 of the rebel Revolutionary United Front's 45,000 members were children, and 7,500 of them girls, the study found. A second Sierra Leone rebel group, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, had 10,000 soldiers, half of whom were children and about 1,700 were girls.

The rebel groups were infamous for their brutal tactics, including hacking off the limbs of civilians and forcing children to kill their parents and fight while high on drugs.

After the war, U.N. peacekeepers helped disarm 47,000 fighters, many of them children inured to violence.

The program set up to help the former soldiers return to civilian life helped only 5 percent of the girls linked to the two main rebel groups, Mazurana and McKay found.

Girls in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Mozambique spent from several weeks to as long as 10 years or more in the service of rebel armies and government-sponsored paramilitary groups, with the average stay being six years, Mazurana said.

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