Wed, Jul 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Going to war for a pair of red shoes

Girl soldiers in Liberia and beyond are fighting in pursuit of sexual equality

By Diane Taylor  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

An AK47 and a pair of red stilettos might, on the face of it, seem to have nothing in common. Surprisingly though, both are said to have played a significant role in recruiting young girl soldiers to fight in Liberia's civil war.

The usual view of girl soldiers -- who make up between 10 and 30 percent of some child armies -- is that they are unwilling participants in conflicts, dragged kicking and screaming into government or rebel soldier battalions. Yet according to the new report, Red Shoes: Experiences of Girl Combatants in Liberia, which details research by anthropologist Irma Specht, girls' motivations for fighting are often much more complex than previously thought.

Specht's report, written for the UN, adds to her previous studies of child soldiers in countries including Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and Colombia, and documents the growing number of girls who are choosing to fight.

In countries such as Liberia, for instance, where poverty is endemic and most people can afford only threadbare flip-flops, a fashionable pair of shoes possesses incredible cachet. They are so covetable, in fact, that they have even helped to propel some girls on to the battlefield.

As one girl soldier, Margaret, explains: "I saw the new red shoes of my friend [and] asked her where she got them from. She took me to these boys. Later on I got involved with one of them [and] when he was fighting I followed him."

Couture considerations aside, young girls may join rebel or government forces for other unexpected reasons. For many, constantly under threat of sexual violence, becoming a soldier and taking possession of a weapon is seen as a key way of protecting themselves from the ever-present danger of being raped.

Marjory, a young Liberian fighter, said it was partly the experience of having been raped and the desire to avenge this crime that led her to join up.

"The rape ... made me feel very angry. I couldn't sit still and do nothing about it. I wanted to take revenge. Not everyone who has been raped can stand up and take revenge because not everybody [has] a strong heart. So we were revenging for everybody," she said.

A yearning for greater equality with their male peers motivates many girls. Fourteen years of civil war in Liberia has led to a society awash with guns, where violence is highly normalized.

Before the war, older men were chosen as village chiefs but once hostilities took hold, young male ex-fighters were chosen instead. And, while the older men generally dealt calmly and wisely with disputes, the younger ones (used to settling disagreements through the barrel of a gun) have been noticeably less measured.

Girls have often been even more marginalized than before as a result of this new, macho style of local leadership, under which they have been forced into a more subservient role than they would have had before the war.

Those who actively seek equal status with men have sometimes surmised -- perhaps correctly -- that the only way to achieve it is to prove themselves as fighters.

"What men can do, women can do even better, so I decided to join them," Marjory said.

"In the army we were equal to the men. We were fighting [alongside them] and we proved to the men that we could do it," she said.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo this desire for equality led to groups of female soldiers, known as Amazons, joining the fighting.

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