The term ‘youth’ is often assumed to mean males, whereas female youth are simply considered ‘young women’, particularly if they are married or have children. Girls and young women are rarely seen as a specific group in their own right in most DDR programmes, although they do form a large and increasing share of armed forces and groups in many conflicts. Though the roles of young men and young women within conflict are often stereotyped, with men and boys seen as aggressors and women and girls as victims, the reality is much more complex both within and between sexes. Female youth may join armed forces and groups for various reasons, such as protecting themselves or their families from violence or as a way to make their voices heard in the face of gender-discrimination. However, while girls and young women may play a variety of combat and non-combat roles during conflict, the reality remains that many are taken into armed forces and groups involuntarily, as they are abducted to be forced labourers or sexual slaves.
As is true with young girls, female youth often remain ‘hidden’ from DDR programmes, with commanders holding them back from the programme, having their weapons taken from them before leaving the bush or because the young women themselves resist being recognized as combatants due to fear of social exclusion and stigmatization. UN agencies involved in DDR programming are responsible for finding, identifying and securing the release of young women, and measures should be taken to empower ex-combatant and associated young women to become valuable social, political and economic members of the new society.
Violent armed conflict tends to aggravate sexual abuse, as gender-based violence is often used as a weapon against girls and women, though also against boys and men in some conflict zones. Young women carry extra burdens of unwanted pregnancies and higher chances of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS as a result of sexual violence. In addition to the mental and physical health risks, sexual abuse poses additional challenges to the reintegration of girls and young women. Carrying children born of rape, being abandoned by their ‘bush husbands’ or being forced to stay in illegal or socially unsanctioned marriages even if their family wants them to return are all tremendous problems. The large burden of care placed on young women makes it difficult to compensate for their lack of basic education, as they often simply lack the time, energy and/or financial means to attend the education and training courses that could improve their living conditions. Programmes must include referrals to holistic support, including counselling, health related and legal services, family mediation, and reintegration support.