Child soldiers, child wives: wounded for life

Working with ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army, and the girls they have taken as wives, has convinced Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee that the abuse women suffer during conflict is a reflection of the interaction between men and women, boys and girls, during peace time.

Leymah Gbowee is one of three women who have been awarded jointly this year's Nobel Peace Prize. This article was first published in May 2011.

During the early years of my work as a peace activist, I worked for the Lutheran Church Trauma Healing program in Liberia with the war wounded ex-child soldiers of Charles Taylor's army. My job was to design counselling sessions for the boys and link them with institutions that could provide some assistance for the many physical needs they had. This was a perfect place for someone who had so many negative perceptions and stereotypes about these young people.

During the years of engagement with these little boys, it became very clear how patriarchy as a system first influenced first their decision to join the rebellion. John (not his real name) told me he had joined the rebellion because his older brother joined, and that every time he came back from the war front, the community hailed him as a “real man”, and he also at 12 wanted to prove that he was a real man. When we met at 19, he had lost an eye and had many physiological scars that would render him unfit to achieve his full life’s potentials.

Joseph's story is also similar; “the boys who joined the rebellion came back and were really respected and were seen often in the company of the elders and community leaders. When we came around we were told we were little boys and could not sit in the company of men. I wanted to prove that I too could sit in the company of elders, so I joined to rebellion”. Joseph lost a leg during the war, and now lives in Monrovia as a shoemaker.

The fact that a lot of these little boys’ future was altered because they needed to prove their maleness is something for us to think about. The second side to these narratives is that as they proved their maleness by joining the rebellion, they also had to prove their maleness by taking in a wife or two and bringing her to a state of total submission. Many of the wives of these young men were forcibly taken, raped and beaten into submission.

As part of my work as a case worker, I had the opportunity of working with the wives of these young child soldiers, their interaction and conversations predominantly bordered around the use of violence and abusive language as a means of communicating. About 80% of the girls in these homes told stories of being forced into the relationship and excepting their fate, because it at least offered them protection from numerous unwanted sexual partners. These girls also exhibited a kind of violent nature that was even more frightening than the behaviour the young soldiers displayed. A young lady (Martha) said she learned to be violent as a means of coping with the life of violence that she had been exposed to.    

Many of these young men and women, may never get to live a life without violence, because even as the physical violence has ended for them, they continue to live with  emotional and psychological violence.  Joseph, told me “every time someone pass by and insults me my trauma is re-ignited and all I want to do is abuse drugs and forget the state I find myself in”.

Similarly the girls in these homes continue to be victimised by these “husbands” of theirs. Many of the girls now have kids and leaving these men is not an option for them as many of them say “who will take me with all these children? ” or, ” it will be difficult to take the children away from their fathers as they are really close to their fathers".

The sad state of life for these girls is that their entire life is caught up in a spiral of one individual trying to prove their “maleness”. The cases described here are not limited to Liberia. This is the every day story of girls and women in conflict situations. Sexual violence has become a norm and unfortunately, young boys and men trying to prove their maleness has become the status quo in conflict situations.

The question that many ask is how is it that the world has descended into such a sad state, where the bodies of women are being used as a battlefront and a war strategy. The global statistics of women and girls who have been sexually exploited is not only appalling but heart wrenching.

Major General Patrick Camert once said, “It was more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in conflict context”.

Recent narratives from female survivors of war are all about rape and rape and more rape.

In Liberia, women of some ethnic groups have told stories of how knives and guns were inserted into their private parts because the soldiers said their own private parts were too good to enter theirs.  Recent stories from Cote D’Ivoire, describe how girls and women were placed in special rooms and forced to service soldiers sexually as they came from the war front. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, and many more African countries that have gone through conflict or are going through conflict tell similar stories of the horrors of being a woman.

I can’t help but ask, why is it like this? Why do we have such a situation?  Why have women become so vulnerable to the men and boys that they co-exist with in communities and in nations?

I honestly can not answer these questions, but I would like to take a step back and reflect on the words of Elizabeth Rein and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in the book Women War and Peace that “the abuse women suffer during conflict is a reflection of the interaction between men and women, boys and girls, during peace time”.

Is this statement true at all? My verdict is yes. In most of our communities we objectify women as bearers of babies, and our global media has descended to using the sensual objectification of women’s bodies as the only means of promoting products. Girls are being socialized both directly and indirectly to believe that a super model physique is the way to obtaining fame and fortune.

During the early days of the Liberian civil war, one of the child soldiers, I worked with, told me he didn’t rape anyone; he had sex with them and then added, “Isn’t that what women were made for”. This statement has often drawn angry reaction from women every time I mention it, but the question to ask is why did he think that way, would it be different if the statement  came from an unarmed boy? Well, on March 8, 2011, as we women celebrated International Women’s Day, my 13 year old daughter went to school to tell her friends about the day and what it meant… A young boy in her class (13 years old) asked her, "what are women good for but making babies and caring for the home?”.

Put a gun in this child's hand, and the story is the same one as that of my child soldier friend. So what must we do to change these interactions in peacetime so that women and girls are safer during conflict? I think as activists we need to strategize on how to effectively engage with men and boys, and make them to understand the impetus for the work that we do.

As difficult as it may sound, I think women tackling difficult issues specifically in Africa is not a strange phenomenon. In 2003, Liberian women organized a mass action campaign to pressure the warring parties to bring an end to the civil war. Many commentators have hailed the women's actions as one of the contributing factors that ended the war in Liberia.  I think if women across the globe join forces on the issue of sexual violence, there will be some change. It is time women globally start making the connection between sexual violence and the unequal treatment of women in economic, social, and political context, and devise strategies for tackling these inequalities in a holistic manner. It is time to make men and boys see what they stand to lose when women are ill treated - and what they stand to gain when women are treated well. 

Opening up the space for sustain dialogue with young men and boys is vital if we are to break this trend.

On May 23rd, 120 women leaders from around the world will join the Nobel Women's Initiative to discuss and try to find some answers to the issue of security and ending sexual violence in conflict. I believe that the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the women gathered together will produce some practical recommendations on ways of dealing with this modern day pandemic. 

Read also Peace negotiations: did you carry a gun? 

Leymah Gbowee is the central character in the award winning film Pray the devil back to hell made by Abbey Disney.

Leymah Gbowee's book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer And Sex Changed A Nation At War is published by Beast Books, (September 2011).

To read openDemocracy 50.50's full coverage of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference in May, click here.

 

About the author

Leymah Gbowee is a Nobel Peace Laureate and women's rights and peace activist from Liberia. Leymah founded Women in Peacebuilding Program/ West African Network for Peacebuilding (WIPNET/WANEP). In 2009 the John F Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was given to Leymah, together with the women of Liberia, for their role in the peace process in Liberia.  She also worked as a Commissioner Designate for Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission from February 2004 to October 2005. the Executive Director of the said company.

She is the central character of a documentary film entitled "Pray the Devil Back to Hell".  Ms. Gbowee holds a MA in Conflict Transformation from the Eastern Mennonite University and is a mother of five.