By Heather Tasker and Mariam Elzeiny, on behalf of the Conjugal Slavery in War(CSiW) Partnership Project
Canada’s commitment to upholding and implementing a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) has sparked significant discussion and engagement over the past three years and has demonstrated potential for advancing gender equality initiatives globally. Two key elements of a FFP are a commitment to intersectional policy approaches and advancing the rights of girl children. Female children are specifically victimized in times of war, and to date there has been little consideration of children born of sexual violence in times of war (Children Born of War: CBoW). These young people live in conflict and post-conflict regions ranging from Colombia to Iraq, Sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans, and yet we have not seen recognition of, or sustained policy attention to, their unique set of challenges and needs.
The Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW) partnership project has uncovered the diversity of experiences of CBoW in Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Rwanda, as well as commonalities across contexts. It is clear from consultations with community-based practitioners and interviews with young people that CBoW are an underrecognized and underserved group. They face stigma and community ostracism related to socio-economic status, perceived ethnicity and “otherness”, patriarchy and gender discrimination, and the environmental and political challenges of living in post-conflict states. Together, these factors intersect in such a way that young people experience interpersonal violence and struggle with uncertain futures.
Furthermore, CSiW partnership’s findings emphasize the importance of maintaining a holistic approach to understanding CBoW’s lives post-conflict. Across contexts, CBoW face difficulties in accessing education, developing a sense of belonging and gaining financial independence. They also face significant stigma. These challenges intersect in ways that should be considered when designing policy interventions. For example, access to education is vital to gaining financial independence and was also found to contribute to youth’s sense of identity and self-esteem. Being unable to attend school led to feelings of isolation and uncertainty about their futures, a case all too common for CBoW living in poverty with mothers unable to afford school fees, books, or uniforms.
CBoW across contexts experience stigma as a result of their father’s identity, often referred to as “rebel child” and related pejoratives. In Uganda, the absence of a father figure is connected to the perception that CBoW are at increased risk of committing violence and other criminal acts, especially for males. This does not seem to be the case in Liberia, where the absence of a father results in CBoW feeling unloved and out of place rather than putting them at risk of criminalization. Girl CBoW in Uganda were more likely to be married early than their peers. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, girls often left home at a young age and experienced increased rates of sexual and intimate partner violence. Many young people also faced intergenerational stigma resulting from the sexual violence their mothers survived; this was particularly common in Rwanda and emphasizes the need to consider and combat pre-existing gender inequalities and gendered violence in designing supports for CBoW.
CBoW across contexts build confidence through education and find a sense of belonging in religion, but are more susceptible to early marriage, adolescent pregnancies, and face increased violence in the home and community. CBoW’s lives are not narratives of total victimhood, though. Their stories are ones of agency, hope, and belief in a better future; they are chronicles of survival. Consultations and programming should take place directly with CBoW to ensure their voices and perspectives are central to policy and program development. The differences across contexts, along with the resilience of CBoW, needs to be carefully understood and considered when developing Canada’s role in assisting these young people.
The Canadian Feminist International Assistance policy broke important ground by centring support and respect for community-based organisations’ expertise and promoting direct funding to groups working most closely on issues related to gender equality and peacebuilding locally. In areas where there are peer-led groups for CBoW, these should be the first to receive direct funding. In other cases, grassroots and locally based civil society organisations are well-placed to understand the specific needs and concerns of CBoW in their community. Canada can adapt such policies by moving away from directing funding primarily at large international NGOs to funding local civil society organizations that work to develop support and deliver programs that are relevant, targeted, and appropriate for the CBoW in their communities.
Throughout the CSiW partnership, it is evident that children born of war are understudied, under-recognized and underfunded. Therefore, the inclusion of CBoW into Canadian foreign policy will position Canada as a leader on advancing the rights of vulnerable young people around the world. In contributing to a truly feminist foreign policy, Canada’s responses must be flexible and adaptive to different contexts, centre the expertise of CBoW, and advance intersectional approaches to understanding harms and developing supports for youth who are asking for recognition and help to build the lives they deserve. Our recent collaboration with Global Affairs Canada (GAC) through the 2020 International Policy Ideas Challenge (IPIC) leaves us optimistic that CBoW will soon receive the attention they need and deserve in Canada’s international policy developments.