Ask before you tell: How to make the world better for girls in conflict areas

By — March 8, 2012

The most positive, most productive way to improve the lives of girls in conflict areas may appear to be to sharply steer them away from stigma and violence. But as researchers and fieldworkers, advocates and policymakers, we have to consider the pitfalls of thinking we know best. Even those of us who have been through war, suffered violence, or experienced discrimination firsthand can’t assume what other girls and women have gone through.

“Men, women, boys, and girls experience conflict differently, and therefore they have distinct needs in the post-conflict phase,” according to a United Nations Association in Canada (UNA-Canada) public dialogue in Vancouver in 2007. “Yet programs are often ‘gender blind,’ meaning that they do not take into account the different experiences of women and men.” Without asking a girl what she needs, what she fears, and what social pressures and stigmas are holding her back, our guess may be dangerously off base.

Take Darfur. The ongoing conflict in Sudan has already relegated Darfuri women to the margins of their communities through rape and other abuses. As if that weren’t bad enough, the very relief groups charged with helping them often don’t take into account the specific needs of women and girls.

Outside peacekeepers (which consist of about 70 percent men globally, according to a 2011 UN Peacekeeping Background Note) simply shut women out of decisions, says Shannon Orcutt, policy associate on Sudanese conflicts at United to End Genocide. Although Darfuri women talk about leadership roles they had before the war, says Orcutt, the international aid community mainly “chooses to work with men.”

By not including women and their needs and those of their daughters in the consultative process, humanitarian groups are not only guessing blindly at what half the community needs, they are also automatically cutting down girls’ and women’s agency. If you are a Darfuri girl watching allegedly helpful forces ignore your and your mother’s problems—whether they be the dangers of accessing cooking supplies, further sexualized violence you’ve experienced after having already been attacked, or the fact that you’ve been kicked out of your brother’s home because of your status as rape victim—you will come to understand that your needs, as pressing as they are, are not a priority.

In the longer term, as these outside groups disproportionately give power to men in the area, and those men fill roles that women had held before the war, girls grow up with fewer female role models and fewer opportunities to lead. When the community comes out on the other side of conflict, it will have taken a step backward.

While in Darfur it’s outsiders who may not have been checking in with those they’re trying to serve, experts point out that harmful “support” can come from within populations as well.

Yasmin Saikia, a scholar on the Indian subcontinent and chair of Peace Studies at Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, tells of costly cultural ignorance in Bangladesh. In the 1990s, she says, a group of middle- and upper-middle-class women strong-armed lower-class survivors of the 1971 conflict to testify in a people’s court. While in some regions helping women use their strong voices to share publicly the horrors they’ve endured might be helpful (and certainly has been, such as in Rwanda, where testifying brought justice to some rape survivors)—such a strategy caused a major problem for the women who came forward in Bangladesh. Especially in Muslim societies, says Saikia, where “rape” is a word women can hardly bring themselves to use and where any admission that such a thing happened means automatic expulsion from one’s family, testifying can cause irreversible harm.

Girls in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where between 200,000 and 400,000 women and girls were estimated to have been raped in the country’s 1971 war.

The moment the women who testified in Bangladesh said, “We were raped,” says Saikia, they were denounced by their sons. One public mention of the abuses they’d suffered during the war, and their lives were upended beyond the upheaval the initial rape had already caused.

In the end, the women who encouraged the survivors to testify lost neither family nor their homes. The survivors who spoke out did. And they were not the last people to be affected by what happened here. As Saikia explains, the reaction against the witnesses—being cast out by their own sons—made one thing very clear to other local women: You have experienced something dishonorable, and you should never share your shame.

Skip forward to the current war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh, which, among its many problems, has failed to take these consequences for women survivors into account.

Survivors who still live in Bangladesh are not, says Saikia, pushing for the tribunal. Girls who were raped in 1971 but whose families were affluent enough to send them to Canada or the States to start new lives are now women—and those women are not heading back to lay bare the secret shame they’ve been carrying for decades. Outside advocacy groups and local women might want survivors to go public. Yet the survivors themselves may feel they will lose whatever positive social support they have by testifying.

“Feeding some kind of external group saying, ‘Tell us your story and we will make everything right,’” doesn’t work, Saikia warns. In places like Bangladesh, “society will not change and everything will not be right.” If a mother comes forward to tell of her rape as a young girl, any daughters she has now will suffer immensely. They will see that their mother has been punished, not lauded, for bravely telling of her abuse. And they will feel firsthand the effects of their own brothers, husbands, and uncles cutting ties with their “dishonored” parent.

Of course, it depends on the conflict as well as the person. In places such as Bangladesh, girls and women may not become empowered by speaking out, much as we may like to believe. In other conflicts, some girls and women hide what’s happened to them to avoid retaliative attacks, especially in places like Congo, where mutilation or a second rape are common forms of punishment for telling one’s story. Others, such as one woman who went public in Uganda, find catharsis in defying stigma and speaking out. The complexity is endless: Women from Honduras to Nigeria have told Women Under Siege that they feel finally unburdened when they tell us they were raped, but then ask us to never publicize their names; they want to help future generations of women and girls, but feel they are beyond hope for complete healing and fear retribution if they go public.

When we fail to see that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all approach, we risk heaping more damage onto already difficult lives. Whenever possible, we need to ask individuals what would help them most—and what would cause only more harm.

It isn’t that we don’t mean well. We want to help girls grow up in an environment that feels more secure, less violent. We want to ensure that those girls who have been sexually assaulted or raped are not cast out at an early age. We’d like to think we can empower them by giving them space to share their stories. But there’s a road that good intentions are said to pave, and with good reason. By asking enough questions and simply listening to what girls and young women say they need, we can forge a more positive path.

This article is part of Gender Across Borders and CARE’s third annual “Blog for International Women’s Day” event, in which bloggers, writers, and humanitarian organizations are asked to write about the International Women’s Day theme on March 8. This year’s theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”