Innovation in the Prevention of the Use of Child Soldiers: Women in the Security Sector

Roméo Dallaire, Shelly Whitman, and Sam Holland | March 2016

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This article is from the “Women, peace, and inclusive security” edition of PRISM—a top defense and security studies journal—which was co-produced by Inclusive Security and the National Defense University. Read the full issue.

“Our collective failure to protect children must be transformed into an opportunity to confront the problems that cause their suffering.”
– Graça Machel

Of all the characteristics that define contemporary conflict, the use of child soldiers presents one of the farthest-reaching and most disturbing trends. As of 2015, according to the United Nations Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, of the 59 countries identified by the organization’s Secretary General for grave violations against children in war, 57 are named for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.1 The deliberate use of child soldiers by armed forces and armed groups “is a way to overcome their weak starting point as far as recruiting, organization, and other state-centered systemic barriers to growth.”2

One hundred and five United Nations Member States have committed to the Paris Principles defining a child soldiers as:

any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.3

In spite of a widely accepted comprehensive definition, Member States still lack a unified response.

The international response to the use of children as soldiers has leaned heavily on strategies of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). However, this strategy fails to stem the recruitment and use of children in the first instance—the international community has opted to fix the broken rather than to protect the whole. The lack of significance given to preventative strategies has caused the global community to stand idly by as children’s rights are horrifically violated in conflict zones.

The prevention of the use of child soldiers has been relatively low on the overall peace and security agenda when addressing armed conflict. Until most recently, child protection has been relegated as a social issue, placed in the hands of civil society organizations and NGOs, allowing international donor countries as well as national governments who commit to protecting children to frequently shirk the responsibilities. However, child soldiers are a security concern that needs—and deserves—to be placed at the top of the security agenda.

The shortcomings of the current efforts to prevent the use of child soldiers are further evidenced by the lack of attention paid to child protection and the prevention of the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict within peace agreements and treaties. Since 1999, child protection has been featured in cessations of hostilities, ceasefires, comprehensive peace agreements, and other materials. Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an organization informed by a network of NGOs based in New York, reviewed 407 eligible documents between 1999 and 2014. They found that only 79 of these documents made reference to child protection; 56 of the 79 included language concerning children and armed conflict. The most prominent grave violation cited within the 56 documents was the recruitment and use of children by armed groups and state groups.

Solving the problem of global recruitment and use of child soldiers requires a comprehensive solution. At the core of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative’s (herein the Dallaire Initiative) approach is a suite of scenario-based, prevention-oriented training programs that prioritizes the protection of children through a security sector approach. These trainings are designed to better prepare security sector actors (military, police, and prison personnel), who are often the first point of contact for child soldiers. The innovative preventative approach of the Dallaire Initiative aims to fill knowledge gaps and bridge the divide between international policy and legislation with the realities faced by the security sector. This approach seeks to change attitudes and behaviors that in turn lead to holistic systemic change that eventually makes the recruitment and use of children as soldiers unthinkable.

Distinct and Undervalued

To date, the Dallaire Initiative has trained security sector personnel from over 60 different countries. However, only 13 percent of security sector personnel trained have been women. In part, this imbalance is due to the low percentage of women that make up security forces worldwide and the limited professional development opportunities that are made available to them. Despite these low numbers, the women who participate in our training sessions demonstrate a keen desire to be at the forefront of the fight against the use of children as soldiers.

In the Dallaire Initiative’s work around the globe, we have recognized that women security sector actors can make distinct and valuable contributions to peacekeeping operations and peacebuilding efforts. Women offer important perspectives on communities and cultures, and provide the possibility of new preventative approaches to dealing with the use of child soldiers. “As a female military observer, I can return from a patrol with very different information than my male counterparts, just by virtue of being a woman,” stated a Zambian Female UN Military Observer during a research interview in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in August 2010.

In 2014, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, stated that although there had been incredible strides taken “to move beyond viewing women as only victims of conflict to seeing them as agents of peace and progress,”4 the current state of affairs around the world continues to hinder the capability of women to engage in formal peace and security processes. While many recognize the importance of women in attempting to end sexual and gender-based violence, we see that this must be extended to other issues key to the overall peace and security agenda, such as the protection of children, in general, and the prevention of the use of child soldiers, more specifically.

The Existing Evidence – in Literature

In contemporary conflicts, women and girls are specifically targeted for human rights violations because of their gendered roles in society. While sexual violence is universally denounced, the international community still lacks an understanding of how the security sector, in particular, can be leveraged to prevent sexual violence in armed conflict; this knowledge gap is similar to the one that has prevented the international community from enacting a more robust response to the global child soldier issue.5 The international community needs to be resolute in its response and engage in a more effective preventative approach.

The idea that women can play critical roles not just in the prevention of the recruitment of child soldiers, but in the security sector as a whole, is not new. The United Nations specifically highlights critical reasons for increasing the recruitment of women peacekeepers, listing the following reasons:

  • Empowering women in the host community;
  • Addressing specific needs of female ex-combatants during the process of demobilizing and reintegration into civilian life;
  • Helping make the peacekeeping force approachable to women in the community;
  • Interviewing survivors of gender-based violence;
  • Mentoring female cadets at police and military academies; [and]
  • Interacting with women in societies where women are prohibited from speaking to men.6

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 highlights three specific issues: “the representation of women at all levels of peace and security governance; the meaningful participation of women in peace and security governance; and the protection of women’s rights and bodies in conflict and post-conflict situations.”7 However, the follow-through by UN Member States has been “deeply inconsistent.”8

Despite the UN’s assertion that women peacekeepers can “perform the same roles, to the same standards, and under the same difficult conditions, as their male counterparts,”9 efforts to increase positions for women in the security sector have been heavily weighted on the sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) issue above all else.10 In over 20 years the percentage of women included in global peacekeeping operations has climbed from one percent of all uniformed personnel to less than four percent in 2013.11 A slight increase in numbers does not represent equity. More women working in the SGBV field is not the end goal, and the paltry improvements in female representation certainly do not call for celebration. Without question more needs to be done to institute effective change that will impact the women, peace, and security agenda.

Karen Davies and Brian McKee argue that the real hurdle for women in participating fully in military operations today has little to do with their physical and mental abilities, but rather revolves around social and cultural issues characterizing the “warrior framework.” Historically, the warrior is understood to be male and assumed to share characteristics such as masculinity, superior physical and moral attributes, an aggressive nature, a proclivity to violence, and a “will to kill.”12 In other words, the discussion on the inclusion of women over emphasizes ideas of combat operations without proper regard for the broader range of roles in peace support, humanitarian efforts, and domestic operations. This must be addressed in light of the contemporary challenges posed by the tactical and strategic use of child soldiers. How does the “warrior framework” prevent new capabilities and approaches to such non-traditional and ethical dilemmas?

As an example, Liberia, which experienced a tragic and horrific civil conflict, has emerged from the chaos and violence with some important lessons learned. Unlike the experience of its neighbor Sierra Leone, women’s civil society groups were highly active throughout the Liberian peace process following the civil conflict. During this time, the women’s groups aimed to “‘increase the role of women in the security sector reform by engaging women-led civil society organizations in: transforming public perception of the military and police, strengthening disarmament, and recruiting women for the armed forces and police.’”13 The determination by Liberian women to be present within the Liberian post conflict security sector reform (SSR) process produced tangible and progressive outcomes: the creation of a women and children protection unit within the Liberian Police Force; the adoption of a 20 percent quota for the inclusion of women in the Liberian National Police and armed forces; and cooperation between women’s rights activists and government officials to operationalize the needs of Liberian women within the SSR process.14

The United Nations Mission in Liberia has also played a key role in championing women security sector actors. In 2007, India deployed the UN’s first all-female police unit to Liberia as part of a UN effort to increase the inclusion of women in peacekeeping missions. The unit actively combatted street crime by night and was assigned to stand guard “outside the Monrovia headquarters of the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”15 The Indian female force has also had a positive effect on sexual assault reporting instances. Prior to the introduction of the female police force, the UN reported 47 sexual abuses committed by peacekeepers (2005). However, after their introduction, reports of sexual abuse dropped to 18 (2009).16 The presence of the all-female Indian force also made an impact on the Liberian National Police, resulting in a tripling of the number of female applicants one month after the Indian contingent was deployed.17 Overall, Liberia’s commitment to mainstreaming women’s participation within its security structure is an example that many countries can learn from.

Despite the more general literature on women, peace, and security and the inclusion of women in peacekeeping missions, there is virtually no literature that specifically highlights the connection to the prevention of the use of child soldiers.

The Existing Evidence – The Dallaire Initiative in Practice

In July 2010, the Dallaire Initiative conducted a research mission to the DRC with the main aim of exploring the tactics employed by adult commanders to recruit and use child soldiers. This research fed into the creation of the handbook for security sector actors that guides our training. During this mission, the Dallaire Initiative interviewed peacekeepers as well as community members and former child soldiers.

During a set of interviews with male UN Military Observers, the question was posed as to whether or not their gender affected their ability in any way to conduct their roles in communities. The response was categorically “no!” However, at that time, a female UN Military Observer walked past the room where interviews were taking place and Dallaire Initiative staff took the opportunity to request an interview with her. The same question was posed to her and the answer was markedly in contrast to her male counterparts. She detailed how, simply by virtue of her gender, women and children from communities she operates in are more comfortable approaching her than the other UN Military Observers. She also replied that her male counterparts saw the children as a “nuisance” and would often tell them to “go away.” Conversely, her reaction to the children was more open, enabling children and women who had suffered human rights violations to relay their stories to her in confidence.

In addition, during this mission, questions were posed to male peacekeepers about the presence of girl soldiers in the armed groups and forces. Each time the question was posed, the response was “there are no girl soldiers here in the DRC, only wives or girlfriends of the Commanders.” However, during a set of interviews with former girl soldiers in the DRC, we asked whether or not girls are used in active combat in the DRC. The girls revealed that they are used on the frontline, but that their roles will vary from day to day. Some days they may choose to go to the frontlines to avoid the “domestic duties,” duties that often involved being sexually violated. On other days, they would choose to stay back and face the sexual violence instead of facing death on the frontlines.

On a subsequent mission to the DRC, the Dallaire Initiative had the opportunity to conduct a set of trainings with the DRC’s national army. After a session focusing on girl soldiers, women security sector actors within the group quickly came to a realization that they faced the same plight within their armed force as their younger “sisters” in armed groups. In other words, that they must conduct duties during the day for the military and then are forced to conduct domestic activities, which may also include sexual violence, during the evenings.

The revelations from these experiences highlighted the need to better address the unique and undervalued perspectives of women in the security sector towards the prevention of the use of child soldiers, and created a catalyst for further inquiry. The women who have participated in the Dallaire Initiative’s training have provided new knowledge and highlighted their effectiveness and desire to prevent the use of child soldiers and better protect children writ large. Additionally, women that have received our training have gained new leadership responsibilities and advancement opportunities, paving the way for other women moving through the ranks; in this way, the Dallaire Initiative addresses two obstacles to global peace. With new regional trainings in the Dallaire Initiative’s prevention-oriented program on child soldiers, we plan to amplify the impact of these women leaders within their forces and on the ground.

This is highlighted by the effects of our work in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone endured a brutal civil conflict from 1992-2002, characterized by the use of child soldiers (some reports allude to approximately 10,000 active in the country throughout the conflict) and gender-based sexual violence perpetrated by rebel forces, government troops, and, in some instances, peacekeepers.18 In spite of the unanimous passing of UNSCR 1325, among other related conventions and treaties, Sierra Leone lags far behind reaching its goals. Following the civil war, Sierra Leone made minimal progress in promoting the participation of women in government and security institutions as well as the overall well-being of the country’s female population. Currently, Sierra Leone ranks low in human development, coming in at 183 of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index on Gender Equality.19

The underwhelming post-war performance in Sierra Leone compelled the Dallaire Initiative to pilot a program specifically aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers by working with the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), Sierra Leone Police Force (SLP), and Sierra Leone Prison Service (SLPS). Throughout the first year of the pilot program (2013), the Dallaire Initiative took particular interest in the women participating in the training program as security sector actors. There was limited representation of women in the program, only 18 percent, yet the female participants made their presence known by bringing new perspectives to the training, particularly in modules on girl soldiers, sexual and gender-based violence and stigma.20

Program participants shared their experiences working in the SLP’s Family Support Unit which was established in 2001 and increased the police’s ability to seek justice for crimes of sexual violence. However, the creation of the Family Support Units and “Gender Acts”21 have not been sufficient to curb the prevalence of sexual violence: “reports of rapes, especially involving child victims, steadily increased in the post war period from 2001 to the present.”22 Training participants spoke out about the hardship and lack of resources to effectively respond to and investigate the overwhelming reports.

In May 2014, immediately following the completion of the Training of Trainers (ToT) program, the Dallaire Initiative received a request from the Sierra Leone Police Service Assistant Inspector General to instruct a group of 75 female police officers who were chosen for pre-selection training for UN peacekeeping missions. We felt it critical to take this unique opportunity and engaged one of the newest female police graduates from the Dallaire Initiative’s Program to co-facilitate the class.

Despite the limited resources and challenging conditions, the female police officers were keen to engage in the training activities. These women were acutely aware of the challenges still facing children in Sierra Leone in the post-war period and the dangers this may pose for peace and stability in the country. At the same time, they felt at ease to openly discuss their experiences and opinions and wanted to be leaders in protecting children. Our female police graduate who co-facilitated the class was also visibly invigorated by the experience and was clearly viewed with respect by her female peers.

Building off of our experience in West Africa, we are dedicated to mainstreaming the participation of women in security sector training. Our training with the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) began in 2015 and the female participants provided evidence for the need to engage and build on the existing capacity and agency of women in the security sector. In particular, one female participant, who had just returned from a year-long mission in Somalia, shared a creative way that women security sector actors in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) had made progress to prevent the use of child soldiers by al-Shabaab. She explained that she had formed a working group of female peacekeepers that held informal meetings with wives of al-Shabaab leaders. Through the meetings, peacekeepers would negotiate the release of children held by al-Shabaab. It was clear from the male UPDF participants in the training room that they had not been aware of these innovative approaches being taken by their female counterparts in the AMISOM mission.

The distinctive operational advantages to mainstreaming women security sector actors was further evidenced during our engagement with military chaplains. During our Chaplain Roundtable event with military chaplains from Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, we led a discussion on the varied experiences of female and male chaplains while on deployment and the various interactions they have with children in mission settings. In an effort to promote open conversation, the facilitators divided the participants into breakout groups dividing the men from the women. Although there are significantly fewer women than men in military chaplaincy, female participants stated that female chaplains have a vastly different experience when on mission, and interact with children and other civilians in a very different manner from their male counterparts. According to some female participants, these interactions are possible because women have a strong sense of community, are empathetic, and have a nurturing quality that enables them to engage with women and children on a different level than their male counterparts. The female participants also voiced that they are not given sufficient space to share their lessons learned as women in the field, further evidencing the disconnect between policy and what actually happens in theater.

Since UNSCR 1325 was passed, seven other Security Council resolutions have been passed with respect to women and security,23 and another eight resolutions have been passed with respect to children and armed conflict;24 however, these documents have not been translated into tangible progress in the areas that need it most, nor have the resolutions tied the two issues together in any meaningful way. Demonstrating the disparity between rhetoric and action, the 2014 report of the Secretary General on Women, Peace and Security observed that in 2012 “only 0.35 percent of aid allocated to conflict, peace and security activities [was] marked as having a gender focus.”25 In its latest report on women and security, Human Rights Watch further highlights that donor countries lack practical support for programs specifically aimed at helping women and girls in armed conflict —“too often […] officials assert it is not the right time to push for women’s rights, that security is somehow a prerequisite for women’s rights rather than inextricably linked with them, or that they do not have the leverage to act.”26

Forcing the Winds of Change

Based on the literature and our practical experience, we at the Dallaire Initiative believe that women security sector actors can provide unique tactical and strategic advantages to preventing the use of children as soldiers. Embracing women in the security sector will provide peace missions with tactical and strategic advantages that they have been missing. The female experience in conflict is diverse and vastly different to that of their male counterparts. Yet, the international community continues to view women largely as passive victims during conflict, rather than active participants in peace. In the Dallaire Initiative’s experience, training and advocacy efforts combined with sufficient donor support resulted in the development of a training program specifically targeted to women security sector actors. Our goal for the Women Security Sector Actor Project is to bridge the gap between policy and practice. The project will bring together female security sector actors (military and police) from across East Africa for a series of focus group sessions partnered with training on the prevention of the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The Dallaire Initiative recognizes that women security sector actors offer distinct advantages when addressing the issue of child soldiers and a capacity to lead and enhance operations.

The Women Security Sector Actor Project will take place with Ugandan and Regional security sector personnel. This will allow the Dallaire Initiative to build off of the Ugandan national project and continue to leverage the strategic importance of Uganda in the fight against the use of children as soldiers. Uganda has become a key troop contributing country to United Nations and African Union peacekeeping missions, most notably in South Sudan and Somalia—two countries experiencing conflict with reported use of child soldiers and sexual violence.

Uganda will be the base for the Women Security Sector Actor Project, which aims to bring together women security sector actors from surrounding countries so as to best disseminate the training and experience to the region. The resulting findings will be shared with national governments and international organizations, such as the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the African Union, and specific peacekeeping missions.

As a result of the Women Security Sector Actor Project, the opportunity to ask key questions and to further explore research in this area will be critical. Potential questions that can be explored are categorized in four broad areas:

1. Women as peacekeepers

  • What challenges do women peacekeepers face?
  • Are women better placed to be the liaisons to child protection groups, such as the UN Children’s Rights & Emergency Relief Organization (UNICEF)?
  • If women are high in the hierarchy of peacekeeping, police, and military missions, how does this impact the prioritization of child protection?
  • Do women recognize the plight of children in vulnerable situations differently from their male counterparts? Do they react differently? If so, how?
  • Do women report interactions with children differently than men?
  • Are women affected differently by the trauma of interacting with child soldiers in combat than their male counterparts?

2. Women in national security sector roles

  • Can and do women influence their male colleagues in the military and police to react differently to vulnerable children?
  • Do women communicate differently with others or work with groups outside of the security sector with more ease than their male counterparts; if so, how does this influence child protection?

3. Women as peace brokers/negotiators

  • Can women be more effective as brokers/negotiators of peace to assist with the release of children from armed groups?
  • Would having women focused on child soldiers lead to new leadership roles for the women in the security sector, as this is a key element to the overall peace and security agenda?

4. New tactics to prevent the use of child soldiers from a women’s perspective

  • How do child soldiers perceive women in uniform (police or military) differently from their male counterparts? Does this create more opportunity for prevention?
  • What examples currently exist to highlight some of the potential new tactics and strategies that women may employ to assist in the prevention of the use of child soldiers?
  • What roles do women undertake—nationally and in peacekeeping missions—that could create more interactions with children?
  • Are there unique opportunities for women to assist with giving visibility and assistance to the plight of girl soldiers?


Ending the use of child soldiers requires holistic, incremental approaches that are innovative and grounded in reality. The Dallaire Initiative will use the outcomes of the Women’s Security Sector Project to improve training, research, and advocacy efforts to influence policy and practice at local and national levels. As the Dallaire Initiative strives to incorporate its security sector training into the global strategy for the prevention of the use of child soldiers, new avenues, such as the Women’s Security Sector Project, will help to create momentum to empower the security sector to prevent the use of children as soldiers.

Retired Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, is the Founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Dr. Shelly Whitman is the Executive Director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Mr. Sam Holland is the Research Officer of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

See the PDF (link below) for endnotes.

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