Stigma and rejection from their communities after returning home from armed groups are driving former girl soldiers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo back into the militias, where they are prey to violence and sexual abuse, a charity said this week.
For many girls in the conflict-ravaged east of the country, the pain of being spurned by their families and friends as survivors of rape was worse than the violence itself, according to a report by Britain-based Child Soldiers International (CSI).
"It is better to die there than come home and be rejected," said one of the 150 former girl soldiers interviewed by CSI.
Eastern Congo is plagued by dozens of armed groups that menace civilians and exploit mineral reserves. About a third of child soldiers are estimated to be girls, who are often married off to militants, abused and raped, activists say.
While most girl soldiers in the vast central African nation are abducted by armed groups, others join voluntarily to obtain food and money, to seek protection against violence, or because their families cannot afford to pay their school fees, CSI says.
Yet despite witnessing violence and suffering sexual abuse, some girls in militias do not want to return home for fear of shame and stigma, while many of those who do so end up rejoining the armed groups, said Sandra Olsson, program manager at CSI.
"It is shocking to see that stigma is one of the main reasons reintegration fails so badly for these girls," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "Even after being home for years, many still suffer from exclusion and discrimination."
"We need to ensure these girls are accepted by their communities, rather than being frozen out," Olsson said. "If they don't receive support after returning home, they won't make it ... they will not survive," she added.
The government should ensure all former girl soldiers have education, vocational training, and medical care, and work with community leaders including priests and politicians to improve reintegration efforts, according to CSI.
One third of the 150 girls interviewed by CSI said they had received no assistance or support since returning home.
With violence on the rise nationally since December when President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate, more girls could be forced into joining armed groups across the country, Olsson said.