International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Student Perspectives Masculinity, Gender Role Conflict and PTSD in Child Soldiers

Posted 31 March 2015 in StressPoints by Tara Frem, BA

The use of children and adolescents as fighters in armed conflict hinders their physical, psychological, and personal identity growth (de Silva, Hobbs, & Hanks, 2001). A child soldier is defined as:

Any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms (UNICEF, 1997).

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child sets the minimum age for compulsory recruitment to be 18 years but 16 for voluntary recruitment (UNICEF, 2000). There is a common misconception that children are forcibly recruited into militias; however, some children choose to enlist as a means of survival (Wessells, 2000). Basic health care, regular meals, and protection are strong incentives assured by commanders (Wessells, 2000). The promise of guns also provides a strong contrast to the routine and mundaneness of civilian life (Wessells, 2005). This paper presents the literature on the relationship between masculinity and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it relates to combat violence and child soldiers.

Hegemonic Masculinity, Hyper-Masculinity and Child Soldiers

There is a strongly held misconception that man is synonymous with masculinity (e.g., Bem, 1981; Levant, 1996). However, masculinity is not a property of maleness but rather a set of beliefs so entrenched within individuals that it becomes pervasive in all facets of their life (e.g., Cornell, 2001; Mejia, 2005). Cornell (2001) defined hegemonic masculinity as a culturally dominant masculinity that becomes the ideal that boys and men strive for: heterosexual, aggressive, authoritative, and courageous. Higate (2003) maintained that boys and men, especially in the military, are judged based on their ability to meet the culturally prescribed and idealized masculinity. The military is viewed as a way to achieve a state of manhood, and warfare becomes a way to prove that masculinity (Karner, 1994).

Child soldiers are one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the hyper-masculinization of war (Haynes, Aolain, & Cahn, 2011). There is a systematized construction of children into soldiers and an indoctrination into a "'militarized masculinity'; a rigid set of stereotypically hypermasculinized behaviors promoting dominance by violating, sexually and otherwise, the subordinate 'other'" (Trenholm, Olsson, Blomqvist, & Ahlberg, 2013, p. 1). Violence and masculinity become intertwined to create aggressive soldiers prepared to fight (Baaz & Stern, 2009). In the military arena, "mask-culinity" (Trenholm et al., 2013, p. 12) prevails: Boys are forced to deny their fears, apprehensions, disgust, and unwillingness to perform certain acts. Therefore, obedience to the military hierarchy is the result of fear and the quickly-learned idea of "kill or be killed" (Trenholm et al., 2013, p.10).

Trauma and Masculinity

Pleck (1981) maintained that because masculinity is equated with toughness and a lack of vulnerabilities, it can be difficult to acknowledge that boys can be victimized. Given that men's responses to trauma are often guided by their gender socialization and masculine ideology (Fischer & Good, 1997), many males choose not to seek help because it would be perceived as a loss of control that violates a main tenant of masculinity (e.g., Fox & Pease, 2012). Especially in the context of the military, masculinity serves as the foundational and socially-binding ideology that teaches boys and men to suppress biological imperatives such as expressing fear (Mejia, 2005). Pollack (1998) referred to this as the "shame-hardening process," a process that teaches boys to act like "real men" by toughening up and suppressing their emotions.

Karner's dissertation (1994) highlighted various contradictions that former combatants face such as feeling invincible, powerful, and indestructible and yet also confused, fragile, and helpless. The language inherent in the PTSD diagnosis presents trauma as so extreme that it would be impossible not to express emotions.

However, the diagnostic label also led veterans in the study to feel less responsible for their supposed failures; combat PTSD as a disorder is a "unique medicalization of masculinity" (Karner, 1994, p. 216). The veterans presented their symptoms as extremes of their masculinity resulting from their combat experience. They focused on symptoms that were more masculine (e.g., checking the perimeter of their house) but barely addressed supposed less masculine symptoms (e.g., jumping at sudden noises and feeling fear).  

Girl Child Soldiers and Masculinity

The majority of reports on child soldiering present the phenomenon as male dominant; however, this perspective risks pushing the implications of child soldiering on girls to the wayside (McKay & Mazurana, 2004). Gender stereotypes dictate that women are allowed to react and overreact to trauma (Fox & Pease, 2012).

However, a different view arises when girls are the perpetrators of violence because women are expected to avoid violence (Fox & Pease, 2012). Yet, holding a gun and having combat roles provides some girls with a sense of power and protection, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate their skill (Denov & MacLure, 2006). Furthermore, unlike the stereotype of weak and docile girls, some girl child soldiers thrive on the excitement and control that accompanies the atrocities (Denov & MacLure, 2006).

Girl child soldiers have more intersecting identities than boys. Both are simultaneously victims and perpetrators, as well as children playing adult roles. However, girls have the added dissonance of being raised to follow feminine norms and yet operating in the stereotypically male arena of war. Some girls may experience even more gender role conflict: Mixing the role of a soldier and serving as a sex slave, which are stereotypically male and female roles, respectively. A further complication is that masculinity is not only about moving beyond boyhood but also moving away from anything feminine (Segal, 1990).

Future Directions

Future research should seek to expand on the above research and to introduce the variable of gender role conflict. Specifically, three facets should be explored. First, expanding on the link between masculinity and traumatic stress in a combat context is warranted, specifically in relation to child soldiers. Second, it is important to determine how girl child soldiers score on a measure of masculinity and if the scores differ from those of males. Third, the impact of gender role conflict as a mediator between masculinity and traumatic stress should be explored.  

About the Author

Tara Frem, BA, is currently a second-year clinical psychology doctoral student at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She is completing her first practicum experience as a diagnostic psychology extern at Sarah’s Circle, a non-profit shelter for homeless women and those looking for a safe space. Tara is interested in the fields of international human rights, military affairs, and traumatic stress.


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