The Gnostics ask: “How long will men make war?”
And the answer? “As long as women have children.”
There are so many ways to interpret this, but one explanation is this: Men make war because women have children. Women are breeders of soldiers.
Or so is said. But this seems rather simplistic. There’s a lot more to say about war and womanhood. And motherhood in particular. Here goes.
This past weekend was Mother’s Day in the US. We should spend every day honoring our literal and figurative ability to mother — whether we are actually “mothers” or not. But more importantly, in these dark days, we should honor the critical need for that to be a choice.
I don’t need to tell you that recent developments in the United States have made that choice extremely precarious. America seems on its way to severely limiting — or erasing — women’s reproductive rights.
To me, this is nothing short of a war against women. And, given that it was just Mother’s Day, I started thinking about the experiences of mothers in the context of war. What happens when basic rights are stripped away, when choice is restricted, when social safety nets are destroyed?
What struck me was the universality of it all. How, despite contextual and geographical differences, the experience of mothers in war is really the same. And by “the same,” I mean women (and children) are hardest hit.
Despite this, women are seldom seen as a protection priority in war and its aftermath. I spent too many years working in too many emergencies, watching the “tyranny of the urgent” hijack women’s rights and needs.
Aside from the war against women in the US, I wanted to take a grim tour of other ongoing wars to examine the experience of mothers.
Ukraine… forced migration is a crisis for women
Since February, over 5.5 million persons have been forced to leave the country, with an additional 7.7 million internally displaced. The majority of refugees and displaced persons are women and children — military conscription prevents men aged between 8–60 from leaving.
The result? Families are separated.
In Ukraine, this crisis of forced migration is a crisis for women, and for mothers most of all. We’ve probably all seen the powerful photos of strollers left at train stations for Ukrainian women arriving with babies.
But what happens when initial goodwill and meager state provisions for refugees dry up? How will mothers survive? How will they pay for rent, get a job to pay the rent, and find affordable child care so they can work to pay for said rent and child care?
Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian mothers now face “a higher-stakes version of the problem that working mothers face all over the world: how to find both affordable child care and employers willing to accommodate their needs as parents.”
The risks and challenges are magnified by the refugee experience — and in the long-term, support will dwindle, along with our attention spans. Whatever remains will likely be gender blind, ignoring the plight that mothers fleeing war continue to face, not just in Ukraine, but everywhere.
Afghanistan… still the world’s worst place to be a woman
Both the Global Gender Gap Report and the Women, Peace and Security Index rank Afghanistan as the world’s worst place to be a woman.
Since the Taliban (re)takeover, women and girls have suffered disproportionately. The dire humanitarian situation, combined with policies introduced by the Taliban, have severely deprived women’s access, movement, expression, and opportunity — in short, their freedom.
One in five women in Afghanistan are widows, according to the World Widows Report. Their plight is extremely difficult. Single mothers in Afghanistan have always faced marginalization and increased risk of poverty — now this is much worse. Fewer protections and a hunger crisis have pushed single mothers to the brink — they can no longer feed their children and have no support.
And yet what do mothers tell their children when things go badly?
My friend in Afghanistan told me this:
Mothers are concerned about their children’s safety, and their unknown future in a land that was only just beginning to be free. These kids, they may not be able to continue with their education. And girls, they now have the sense that they are unequal, less-than. We fought so hard to rid them of this very feeling.
Yemen… a forgotten emergency
Yemen is not far from Afghanistan as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Negative gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes, a discriminatory legal system, and economic inequality have compounded women’s vulnerability to violence.
Add in one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, and the situation seems impossibly bleak. The country is on the brink of famine, the economy has collapsed, and nearly 4 million people have been displaced. The latest figures estimate 24 million people are in need of assistance, nearly 13 million of which are children.
Mothers and children particularly feel the effects of the conflict. And this is a conflict we hardly hear about. It’s not on our radar at all, no media attention, no critical conversations about life-saving efforts. Nothing.
Child marriages are increasing as impoverished families use this as a means for survival. The situation is that bad.
One woman and six newborns die during childbirth or pregnancy every two hours in Yemen — because they can’t access health facilities and get the care they need. Children who lose their mothers have less chance of survival due to infection, disease, malnutrition.
The worst part? These deaths are preventable.
But even when there is access to health facilities, the war-torn economy and lack of governmental policies and protections leaves little chance for the situation to improve.
Tigray… when bodies become battlegrounds
The situation in Tigray has been characterized by massacres, weaponised sexual violence, and ethnic cleansing. The UN determines that 90% of the population of Tigray — over 5 million people — are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. And, no surprise, the vast majority are women and children. There’s a theme here.
One mother described the destitution she feels, being utterly helpless for her starving child: “Listening to his cries, there are days when I contemplate killing myself.”
And as for violence against women, too many accounts of abuse, slavery, violence, and torture of women and girls have emerged. Reports have documented sexual violence, in particular sexual slavery, on a shocking scale — perpetrated by all sides of the conflict.
Women and girls in Tigray are continuously being targeted for rape and all forms of sexual violence. “Now, a mother is raped in front of her child or her husband”, resulting in massive physical and psychological damage.
And, as usual, the numbers seriously underestimate the reality.
And, as usual, the international community is shockingly silent.
Myanmar… women resist, and violence persists
Continued military airstrikes, anti-coup militias, and blockades mean 14.4 million people are in need of aid in Myanmar. This has also meant the continuation — and escalation — of sexual violence against women and girls, particularly the Rohingya. Women have remained staunch in their resistance, but have been targeted by the military as a result.
The all-female fighter group, The Myaung Warriors, have a motto, “the hand that swings a baby’s hammock can also be part of the armed revolution.” They are committed to fighting systemic abuse for their children’s future and want to ensure women are part of reconstruction efforts.
The women’s resistance group has been at the forefront of demonstrations and women’s participation in civil disobedience in Myanmar is not new. But the women continue to face traditional gender norms that see them sidelined from peace processes.
Mothers as victims, mothers as fighters
So there’s a theme of shared vulnerability here. And many more crises we could cover. We’ll hear the same thing over and over — that women have it hardest, and mothers are suffering because they are responsible for the survival of their children.
There’s something to be said for that image of the mother who, in a time of crisis, finds physical and emotional strength to protect her child. Does it have to get to this, though?!
Women are hardest hit by crises and are under-represented in peace-making and all aspects of recovery.
While women — particularly mothers — are victims, that is not all they are. Positioning them in this light marginalizes and denies women and their agency. Such beliefs reinforce patriarchal views that a woman’s worth is tied only to her ability to reproduce and care for children. A conversation happening just about everywhere right now.
What does it even mean to be a mother? There’s a lot of ideological weight behind this term. In war, this is even messier. War has long been viewed as “men’s business” — in simplistic and stereotypical ways. And “women’s business” is relegated to more nurturing pursuits — like mothering. Men sacrifice for their country, women sacrifice for their children. Or so goes the cliché.
It is worth stating that women can play a range of roles in war and crises, with complex relationships to militaries, conflict, and violence insofar as they can be agents, perpetrators, and/or victims.
The 2007 book Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics presents a feminist re-evaluation of what is deemed to be appropriate female behavior, too often riddled with stereotypes and stripped of agency. The authors put it this way:
Women can be violent, politically active, wives/mothers, or all three, because women’s lives are complicated, and they are complicated in a world where gender subordination influences their lives in many, multi-directional, ways.
Motherhood is a diverse role with a definition that is constantly in flux. But the common theme is this: Being a mother remains a challenge the world over. Women, mothers, and children are the ones disproportionately affected by conflict or disaster.
But here’s the thing — you don’t need to be in a warzone to experience the stripping away of rights. It happens everywhere. It is happening everywhere.
Being a mother brings risks. But being a mother should always be a choice.
Read the full article here.