Publications & reports

Girls and Warzones

Troubling Questions

Asks why it is so difficult to gather information about the specific experiences of girls in war and peace.

Also available in French and Spanish.

Publication details
Carolyn R. Nordstrom


Girls and Warzones is the most difficult piece of writing I've ever done. My colleagues knew the toll researching and writing Girls and Warzones took on me during the time I was working on it: I would walk out of my office and they would take one look at my expression and say "Writing on your manuscript about girls again, obviously. Let's go for a coffee and put you back together." I realized one of the reasons people don't find much information about the plight of girls on the frontlines is that the mere description of the horrors they can face is debilitating. As this monograph points out, it is hard to accept the fact that we live in a world where these kinds of atrocities can, and do, take place. But there are other, very political reasons that, seven years later, the plight of girls in conditions of violence is just as bad, and it is just as hard to write about. At the same time, there is a real point of optimism. The last seven years have shown a laudable increase in the attention being paid to girls in warzones by scholars, research institutions, and especially by non-governmental organizations. When I wrote this piece in 1997, new opportunities to improve the circumstances of women and children in warzones were opening up. The world at the time was beset with numerous wars, where political justifications for violence were low and civilian casualties were high. Working for human rights, conflict resolution, and justice for youth went hand in hand. Ground-breaking work was taking place on child soldiers, children's political identities, and gender-based analyses that covered the whole of civil society.

But when superpowers went to war in the 21st century, these opportunities began toclose. With the USA-led war in Iraq and the war on drugs in Colombia, the Russian conflict in Chechnya, and the resurgence of the Palestine/Israel hostilities in the post 9/11 world, among others, justifications for war became grounded in 'just war' theory. If the purported goal of an invasion is to establish democracy, the maiming and killing of girls is unconscionable. When this takes place, it undermines the offender's ability to represent democracy. "Collateral damage" is acceptable in just war theory; the death of children is not. In such a climate, harming children does occur, and these acts are largely omitted from public discussion among the countries waging the wars.

Let me update the question I ask in this piece: Do you know how many children have been harmed and killed in Iraq (or Chechnya, Colombia, Burma, Sudan)? What percentage of all war-deaths these represent? How many are girls and how many are boys? Who are these children (urban dwellers, rural peasants, rich or poor, religious affiliation, etc.)? How many have been raped, forced to fight, or suffered starvation? How has the war for democracy affected their prospects for the future by crippling essential services like health care and education? (Super)powers who wage and win wars often have the most extensive and sophisticated information systems - from publishing through media to telecommunications. They also tend to have the most developed ability to keep independent journalists and researchers out of their warzones. This means they have the greatest ability to omit child casualties from public accounting and to affirm just war actions. Those who so carefully worked in the late 1990s to bring the plight of children in wars to light and craft solutions now find their work less than welcome. They can, in the mere citing of statistics on child casualties, blow just war theory to bits.

Sadly, there is a seamier side to this story. After writing Girls and Warzones, I did indepth research on illegal economies. This research demonstrated how internationally extensive such profiteering is. Such profiteering is rife in warzones. The tragically high numbers of orphans and children separated from their families and the difficulty of policing non-military crimes in war makes these locales prime hunting grounds for international syndicates engaged in the child sex and labor industry. Millions of children are forced into such work worldwide in any given year. Thus, in addition to the physical violence of the frontlines, children in warzones are subjected to international profiteers running illegal industries quite literally on the backs of children. I have spent many days joining street children and war orphans in their daily activities in warzones since first writing this piece. This work has prompted me to re-examine the question: "So where, in the final summation, does peace come from?" It may well emerge from places mainstream theory tells us are unlikely. Peace begins when people find violence the worst threat of all. This is not merely a political process. It is forged in the center of daily life. It is carried through simple conversations, crafted in art and music, honed in folktales and literature, and propagated in acts of charity. Even children - or maybe especially children - pick up this dialogue. During the war in Angola, for example, the street children instituted a dialogue to remind everyone to share equally what few resources they had. When one child wants to keep more than the others, to lord over others, to control, the rest respond: Illusion. What you are saying is illusion. Like the big shots with their big cars and big guns.

Like what got us into this mess [the war, poverty, injustice] in the first place. You want more than the rest of us? Don't be like that. That's just illusion. The children take great exception to the common statements that the youth born and bred in war are a "lost generation." This phrase is heard from Angola through Sudan, up to the Balkans, and over to Burma. It is intended to capture a generation of children who have grown up knowing severe political violence, and who have been deprived of settled communities, stable families, schooling, and the creative nurturance that peace imparts. But there is an underside to these comments. The jagged assumption is that these children are indeed "lost," that they will be prone to violence, instability, and aggressive poverty, that they will be limited in their ability to envision and create a better future. That they have looked into the eye of war and will reflect what they have seen. Illusion, the children respond. We know how we came to live this way. We can see who has and who doesn't, who gives and who takes. We know we take better care of each other here [on the streets]: the people with the nice cars and big homes are not asking us home. In the mean-time, we create a life as best we can. You want to know what we need? We need to go to school. We need a place to keep our things. If we get a book or some clothes, how can we keep them on the street? We need a chance, a job, people to believe in us. Michael Comerford, an Irish priest and scholar working in Angola responded to this story by asking:

Who is lost? The children, or those who drive by them without seeing?

To conclude by putting these children's words into larger perspective: in a world girded by international laws supporting the right of the child, children today continue to be tortured, maimed, and killed in war in numbers greater than soldiers, sold into 21st century slavery, and forced to fight carrying guns larger than they are. The silence surrounding this is not accidental, it is political. Those who have dedicated research, publication, and service work to stopping these violations of humanity remain the solution. Illuminating the truths concerning girls in war-zones is a substantial first step towards solving the harm they face.

October 2004 Carolyn Nordstrom Associate Professor of Anthropology University of Notre Dame, USA