How will they treat my children as they grow?

Researcher and advocate for children affected by war, Prof. Myriam Denov (School of Social Work) awarded the 2020 SSHRC Impact Insight Award.

Having spent the better part of two decades working with war-affected children and families, McGill’s Myriam Denov knows that the horrors of war often cannot be expressed through words or narrative. A full professor in the McGill School of Social Work and the Canada Research Chair in Youth, Gender and Armed Conflict (Tier 1), Denov is a specialist in art-based and participatory research. Her work has contributed to a novel understanding of the gendered realities of war and inaugurated a new generation of research exploring the role of children’s agency within military settings.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) today honoured her with an Impact Insight Award, which is given annually to an individual or team whose project has made significant contributions to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world.

R&I spoke with Professor Denov about her research:

What motivated you to work with the child survivors of wartime rape and genocide?

It was a girl named Hawa* who inspired me to delve more deeply into the issue. I had been working in Sierra Leone with former child soldiers alongside a local Sierra Leonean NGO dedicated to children’s rights. It was just after the war had ended. These children—both boys and girls—had been abducted and forced to actively participate in the war and had only recently returned to their communities. During the war, many of the girls had been victims of forced marriage and repeated sexual violence and had given birth to children born of rape. These girls often spoke of the stigma and rejection that they faced when returning to their post-war communities.

Hawa had been abducted at the age of nine by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). She had been forced to fight in battle and to become the “wife” of a rebel commander. Hawa remained with the RUF for more than five years and bore two children as a result of sexual violence. When she talked about her post-war situation—she was only in her mid-teens at that time—she emphasized that while she was experiencing rejection by her community for being a former child soldier and a victim of rape, she was much more concerned about how her family and community were treating her children.

Her children, one of whom was only an infant, were often referred to as “rebel children” and treated with hate and disdain. I remember her saying: “If I’m treated badly, how will they treat my children as they grow?”

Our work with Hawa shed light on the intergenerational effects of the war, and the realities of children born of war. When I looked for empirical literature on the topic, there was very little. Children born of war have been largely invisible in discussions on wartime sexual violence. I wanted to understand the lived realities of these children, as well as the lives of their mothers, many of whom, like Hawa, courageously and inspirationally attempt to carve out a life and livelihood for themselves and their children despite abject poverty, stigma, discrimination, rejection, and few systems of support.

Why were there so few studies of the experiences of girls in conflict? What motivated you to learn about the lives of these girls, and what surprised you about what you discovered?

Fifteen to twenty years ago, there was very little written about girls in armed groups. When the term “child soldiers” was used, it was invariably referring to boys. Girls were portrayed mostly as silent victims. There was a general assumption that girls were not combatants and involved only peripherally in wars. As a result, in many post-war contexts, girls who exited from armed groups were systematically excluded from post-war reintegration programming, including from educational support, counselling and vocational training.

Given what I knew about girls like Hawa, the marginalization and exclusion of girls was deeply disheartening and motivated me to learn more about their lives both during and after conflict. My research on girls in armed conflict in Sierra Leone, northern Uganda, and Colombia highlighted that in spite of their profound invisibility and marginalization, whether in academic literature or post-war programming, girls are not peripheral in their contributions to armed groups but are instead fundamental to the war machine.

The operational contributions of girls are integral and critical to the overall functioning of armed groups. It is no accident that girls have, at times, been the last members of armed groups to be released by commanders and rebel leaders. My research also showed girls’ agency and the unique, and subversive ways that girls resist participation in violence by opposing authority structures, even under highly coercive conditions. Ultimately, girls’ roles in armed groups are complex and multi-faceted as victims, perpetrators, and resisters simultaneously and there is need to make special provisions for girls in postwar decision-making, reconciliation and reintegration.

You have long advocated for the inclusion of children born of wartime rape as members of your research team, and you engage them in study design and data collection. Did you encounter resistance to these research methods— among community members, the children, fellow researchers, or funding agencies—, and if so, how did you overcome it?

At the outset, I did meet with resistance. Some colleagues recommended that I remove the inclusion of children on my research team when applying for funding, arguing that I would never get funded if I included them. Others questioned what children and youth could contribute to a research team. At times, community members showed some resistance, particularly in hierarchical settings.

As an emerging researcher, it was difficult to make the decision to pursue approaches that weren’t always supported. In the absence of peer validation, I looked to the children and youth themselves to determine if I was on the right track. The children and youth were highly motivated, capable, engaged and provided such positive feedback. Their commitment and contributions to projects, and their desire to continue working together was the proof that I needed to continue in the direction I was going. And despite the warnings, I ultimately received generous funding support for my youth-led research. Part of the reason that this award is so meaningful to me, is that SSHRC supported many of my youth-led initiatives and methods, particularly at a time when others questioned it. I’m extremely grateful for their trust, vision, support and openness.

You use art as a research method. What does art reveal that other research methods cannot? Are there limitations to art as a research methodology?

The horrors of war often cannot be expressed through words or narrative. Study participants may also feel immense pressure to “retell” and thus “relive” their wartime experiences. In northern Uganda, children and youth often preferred drawing to talking. Arts-based approaches can enable participants—adults and children—to represent their experiences in contexts of reduced stress.

They have greater control over what they share and how they share it. Research has also shown the psychological benefits of using arts-based approaches as they can, if used effectively, provide a way to safely access traumatic memory, helping with traumatic recovery. Also, in the context of my research, children’s art, whether through drawing, mask-making, theatre, or photographs, revealed information about children’s lives during and after war that our team had not before considered. It provided information that was unexpected, challenging many of our assumptions. That said, using art is not a panacea. Arts-based approaches must reflect local cultural practices, traditions, and be meaningful for participants. For example, the use of mask-making, while relevant in post-war northern Uganda, may be highly inappropriate in post-genocide Rwanda with the potential to re-traumatize, as during the Rwandan genocide, perpetrators of violence sometimes wore masks to hide their identities. This shows the potential dangers of disregarding culture and context. There are other challenges. Once artistic data are created, who “owns” the data? Whose “truth” is represented, the participant’s or the researcher’s? Also, how do we mediate the risks of participants being identified or misrepresented or of witnessing their lives being analyzed and objectified? These are only some of the issues at play that require constant reflection and mitigation.

Your work has revealed that many children born of wartime rape struggle to integrate into society in peace times. For those of us born in countries not affected by war, this concept may be difficult to understand. You have also written of how in some post-war contexts, staying silent about trauma is viewed as an appropriate response, versus what many in the Euro-American cultural outlook may view as repressing feelings. How does this play out in your research?

In some post-war contexts, silence and ‘forgetting’ are said to be cornerstones of reconciliation processes and a form of collective healing. In post-war Sierra Leone, for example, speaking of the war in public was often seen as undermining reconciliation and many believe that it has the capacity to encourage violence. There are very thoughtful and important cultural, socio-historical, and contextual reasons for the use of silence. This contrasts with approaches in the Global North where there is often an assumption that in order to heal from trauma, we need to disclose, to talk, and to share. That said, even within one context, there is not always consensus as to how to best deal with trauma, whether past or present.

In northern Uganda, my research found that children born of wartime rape, as a result of their birth origins, face profound violence, stigma, exclusion, and socio-economic marginalization from family and community, and are prevented from accessing land, education, and health care. These children may be born into and raised in structures in which intergenerational trauma and maternal trauma and stress, combine with social and economic marginalization to create a context hostile to children’s healthy development. While in some post-war and post-genocide contexts the use of silence may prevail, some children born of war are beginning to challenge and contest the silence, which they see as perpetuating their invisibility, social exclusion and discrimination. As one youth said to me: “If we just sit there and stay silent…The government cannot recognize that we need help. We have to be able to speak because we are the victims”. Ultimately, the meaning and use of silence must be contextualized, and importantly, approaches to healing – whether through silence or disclosure - are not universal.

How will you use the funds of the award to further your research?

I’m hoping to build upon my existing work, extending it to issues of fatherhood. For children born of wartime rape, their biological origins and lineage are ever present. These children often come to represent the ‘enemy’ through their biological association with their perpetrator father. My previous research in northern Uganda showed that biological fathers play a central and symbolic role in these children’s lives, even though they are often physically absent. And yet, research has tended to overlook the role of fathers in the lives of children born of war rape. Alongside my research partners, with these funds we intend to explore children’s perceptions of their biological fathers, as well as the views of a sample of the fathers themselves. We hope that this study, one of the first of its kind, will contribute to deeper understandings of forced marriage, fatherhood, and identity for this unique population of war-affected children.

How has McGill and how has SSHRC supported your research? What does it mean to you as a researcher, and personally, to win a SSHRC Impact Award?

Both SSHRC and McGill have supported my initiatives to include war-affected children as core members of my research teams, designing the research, and collecting and analyzing data. They have helped to champion what I think of as ‘scholarly risk-taking’. As a researcher, to be supported in this way is both unique and meaningful. This award is shared with my committed research partners in Uganda, Rwanda, and Cambodia and is a tribute to the remarkable and courageous war-affected children and families that I have had the privilege to work with.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Back to top