Moving around Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, I come across a handful of new billboards with a daunting cartoon image of a young teenage boy against a backdrop of military equipment. The signs are a part of a new public awareness campaign aimed at ending recruitment of boys into both the armed forces. Though there are continuing reports of the recruitment of child soldiers, the billboard campaign is a step that at least in some part of the military there is a desire to professionalize the force. Having worked with girls for a decade and coming up to the fifth anniversary of the founding of Girl Determined, a girls’ leadership program in Myanmar, I wonder why there is not a public campaign to root out the use of girls in the war zones as well.
I keep asking myself, “what do girl victims of war look like?” And the answer, “much the same as other girls.”
Seeing a small boy with a machine gun strapped around his chest is an image that cannot easily be forgotten. For the atrocities of war to be perpetrated against and by children is among the most gruesome of abuses imaginable in the modern day. From our work at Girl Determined we know that girls are direct victims of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, so where are they? Where is their billboard campaign? Their special task force? A girl in a war zone looks much the same as a girl in a poor village or urban outskirts community. She is likely to be seen carrying some bushels of rice, a pot, maybe collecting firewood or perhaps washing someone’s clothes or squatting around a cooking fire. A girl near the front lines wears the same clothes as a girl in a nearby village.
I certainly do not mean to compare the experiences of boys recruited for the front lines with girls recruited as porters or possibly for sex. I do not know if they are comparable. Rather, I am simply asking – is it the commonplace nature of images of girl victims of war that pushes the world to so often overlook their experiences of it?
The girls taken by Boko Haram and the well-done report by Human Rights Watch documenting their experiences reminds us that girls around the world need attention drawn to their experiences of war. The ways that girls have encountered war in Myanmar is diverse. Girls have been displaced across and within country borders, have fed soldiers that passed through their villages, given their pocket money at a check point while going to collect firewood, been raped by members of the military and forced to contribute domestic duties at the front lines. Having lost parents, their villages burned down, girls have crossed into other countries or the cities seeking work only to find exploitation. Though classed as “non-combatants,” isn’t the exploitation of girls in a war zone worthy of direct action?
Girl Determined works with girls who come from different backgrounds, many the direct and indirect victims of war, others of displacement, poverty and discrimination. In the absence of that one shocking image, we use the girls’ voices and their determination to achieve their potential to shape the conversation. Implementing programs in some forty communities, girls are able to process their experiences and find clarity in their demands for improved access to school, health services and protection from exploitation.
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