“I was 13 years old when I joined the Maoists,” said Asha, a girl from a Dalit “untouchable” Hindu caste in southern Nepal, describing how she became associated with the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “I was born into a poor family.” She pointed to a few pounds of cornmeal and then the one goat outside her thatched hut, “We just have this much, nothing more.” Asha continued, “I was a very good student [but] after I took my exams for fifth grade my parents told me: ‘We have no money so you have to leave school and take care of your brothers and sister.’” With few economic resources, Asha’s mother decided to pay for her brothers’ schooling rather than “waste money on a girl’s education.”
After Asha left school, Maoist women frequently visited her home and encouraged her to join the Party. They told her that women and men were equal in the Maoist party and promised her an opportunity to continue her studies if she joined a women’s division of the PLA. A few months later, Asha attended a Maoist cultural program and was impressed by the rhetoric: “Both sons and daughters should be treated equally, the Maoist leaders said. Husbands and wives should work together, too… From that day, I didn’t want to go back to my house.” Believing that the Maoists where her only option for a future beyond domestic servitude, Asha left home to join the armed struggle. During her time with the Maoists, she states that she was well treated and the leaders encouraged her interest in art, enlisting her talents in painting propaganda signs. She only encountered one battle, but saw a number of comrades killed.
Asha returned home for a brief visit after more than a year in the PLA, and her mother immediately married her to a man from a distant community to prevent her from returning to the Maoists. She was 14 and he was 22. Asha describes her marriage as endless abuse and suffering. She was raped throughout the marriage by her husband and beaten by her in-laws. After two years of this abuse, Asha attempted suicide. Her father-in-law found her hanging from the ceiling. He cut her down, handed her the noose, and said, “Go to your mother’s home and kill yourself.” Asha now lives once again with her mother. She wept concluding her life story, “Maybe if I hadn’t joined the Maoists, my parents wouldn’t have forced me to marry, and I wouldn’t have had such a life of suffering. At 13 years old, what do you know? You just don’t understand.”
The exploitation of children by militaries and other groups around the globe is a gross human rights violation that bears lifelong consequences for children and communities. Despite increasing attention to the plight of child soldiers through powerful first-hand accounts, such as Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, fictionalized depictions continue to dominate the public imagination, with important ramifications for the types of intervention and funding made available to support former child soldiers. In fictionalized accounts, life before becoming a child soldier is idyllic and the return home is seen as the panacea for all of the child’s problems. However, as Asha’s story illustrates, the return home can be far more painful than the experiences of war. An ethnographic approach to recording the experiences of child soldiers reveals these complexities.
Through anthropological research in conjunction with Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal and ethnographic filmmaking, we have begun to understand the complex processes that make children vulnerable to recruitment and why the return home is so difficult. In Nepal, the recruitment of children into the Maoist army occurs against a backdrop of state-sponsored human rights violations, gender- and caste-based discrimination rooted in conservative interpretations of Hinduism, extreme poverty, and lack of education or other opportunities. Many see the Maoists as an escape from this, especially women. “After joining the movement women are taught to read and write,” explains Maoist party leader Chairman Prachanda, now Prime Minister of Nepal. “When they fight…they understand the value of freedom.”
We have found that approximately half of child soldiers in Nepal say that they voluntarily joined the Maoist army, often to escape harsh conditions at home. Thus, for some children, their last choice would be returning to a community which they originally fled. Although Asha was in constant danger with the PLA, they offered her a sense of empowerment, a way out of domestic slavery, freedom from a rigid caste system, and an opportunity to learn from women leaders. For Asha, even gun battles were better than what she faced back home. Sadly, her story is not unique. Dalit boys also describe returning home to caste-based oppression after an environment of reported caste equality in the PLA.
Anthropological engagement with the lives of child soldiers is not simply an academic issue, it is crucial to help inform interventions. Anthropological research can address both sociopolitical issues that make children vulnerable to recruitment and post-war community responses to former child soldiers. A simple but important intervention in Nepal has been to support enrollment of girls in school. If Asha’s mother had supported her daughter’s educational pursuits, this may have reduced the chances of her joining the Maoists. Although financial support is part of making this happen, changing attitudes toward girls’ education is also crucial. Fortunately, there is a growing community of anthropologists engaged in research and intervention for child soldiers and other children affected by war, and intervention is focusing increasingly on reintegration as a crucial factor in wellbeing. Ultimately, a more complete anthropological view of the lives of children across the globe will uncover the vulnerability to becoming a soldier and can go a long way to prevent other girls from suffering Asha’s fate.
Brandon Kohrt is a medical doctor and anthropologist who has studied mental health and political violence in Nepal since 1996. He is a technical advisor to Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal, guiding research and intervention programs for former child soldiers.
Robert Koenig is an Emmy Award nominated producer and writer. He produced the documentary Returned: Child Soldiers of Nepal’s Maoist Army, which has won awards from the Society for Visual Anthropology as well as the 2008 Artivist Award for Child Advocacy. This essay includes excerpts from that film. For more information on Returned visit www.nepaldocumentary.com or www.der.org/films/returned.html.Click to see the full article with photos.