Why and how the City of Amsterdam should be opposing Israel’s apartheid regime

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Numerous Palestinian, Israeli, international and UN organizations as well as scholars have called Israel an apartheid and settler-colonial regime. The City of Amsterdam has historically acted against South Africa’s apartheid ...

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Addressing eco-anxiety among children – from environmental education to outdoor learning

Concerned about the long-term effects of environmental degradation and climate change, young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are in the frontline of climate protests currently sweeping the globe. While ...

Women’s Week 2023 | From young girls to “bush wives”: Armed conflicts are traumatising girl soldiers in Africa, and post-conflict peacebuilding and rehabilitation efforts could be making it worse

As armed conflicts persist across the world, children are repeatedly recruited into armed groups as soldiers, robbing them of their childhood. While some estimates reveal that girls comprise almost half of all child soldiers, they feature less prominently in post-conflict peacebuilding and rehabilitation efforts. Esther Beckley in her research explores the disproportionate impacts of war on girl soldiers, exposes the gender blindness of post-conflict peacebuilding efforts, and calls into question the legitimacy of peacebuilding programmes.

“I joined the army by force in 2004. I was still a minor and married. I was harassed by the chief and it traumatised me a lot. I have a 7-year-old daughter who was born from this harassment.”

These are the words of Charlene Kahrikalembu, a young woman from Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who shared her experience with my co-researcher and I[1] about how she was forcefully recruited into the Patriotes Résistants Congolais (PARECO) armed group as a child soldier. Charlene’s narrative echoes that of the thousands of girls who are recruited across the world as fighters, chefs, sex slaves, brides, messengers, spies, and for other reasons in armed conflicts, yet remain unaccounted for during the post-conflict peacebuilding period.

Armed conflicts, wherever they occur, severely affect both people and material resources. Regrettably, the conscription of children, some as young as seven years old, into warring factions is a recurring tendency in armed conflicts, which affects their physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and material well-being. In most situations, children are recruited to replace adults because they are vulnerable, subservient, and easily controlled.

Nonetheless, when the problem of child soldiers is examined, it is often depicted as a masculine phenomenon, i.e. the enlistment of boys. In researching this topic, I have found that this action is mostly influenced by mainstream perceptions of armed conflict as a phenomenon occurring between males who are ‘naturally’ strong and warrior-like. As Tickner (1992:2) puts it, “International Relations is a man’s world where war and power politics are special positions reserved for men”. This perception is further reinforced in the media with popular images of boys holding rifles, whereas girls are frequently deemed insignificant and rendered invisible within fighting forces. However, studies have shown that in contemporary wars, girls comprise 40% of children associated with fighting factions (Haer 2017).

More so, compared to girls not associated with fighting factions, girl soldiers are disproportionately affected by war. This is due to the lengthy period girl soldiers spend in the captivity of their respective armed groups, making them susceptible to persistent sexual violence, torture, drug use and abuse, and illness (Beckley 2021). For example, in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by notorious rebel leader Foday Sankoh used the taboo on women’s nakedness as a weapon of war. This was done by parading naked girls on the frontlines in an attempt to nullify the traditional ‘juju’ (voodoo) used by the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), also known as ‘Kamajors’, who should not see naked women on the frontlines (Oluwaniyi 2019).

From my conversations with female ex-combatants in Goma, eastern DRC, I learnt that girl soldiers were distributed amongst commanders of armed groups to serve as wives, which entailed constant sexual violence and forced pregnancies. This was also the case for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by rebel leader Joseph Kony in northern Uganda, which I studied as part of my Master’s research. In the north-eastern part of Nigeria, girls constitute most of the suicide bombers, performing a strategic role for Boko Haram terrorists (Oluwaniyi 2019).

Despite these prominent roles played by girl soldiers in various armed conflicts, they remain marginalised in peacebuilding efforts. Peacebuilding typically comes as a disappointment to most girl soldiers, since they are faced with an identity crisis of whether they should be considered soldiers or mere sex slaves and wives of commanders. This bolsters their exclusion from peace processes like the United Nations’ Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programmes. DDR is the very first stage of the peacebuilding process, aimed at dissolving warring factions, retrieving weapons from ex-combatants, and providing trauma healing and socio-economic opportunities to ex-soldiers to facilitate their reintegration into civilian life.

Rhetorically, gender issues are pertinent to these tasks, but in reality, this is not always the case. First, the design of DDR programmes in most countries requires ex-soldiers to present a weapon to prove their participation in the conflict before they are eligible for DDR benefits. Now,

how does a girl soldier whose body was used as a weapon of war ‘prove’ that she was a soldier?

In Liberia, for instance, commanders had to testify to a girl soldier’s participation in their armed group before she could benefit from the DDR programme.

Consequently, most girl soldiers do not benefit from the DDR procedure due to its masculinist design. They are forced to self-reintegrate into their communities with no physical, mental, social, or economic support. They return to communities where they previously killed their neighbours and relatives with no form of community reintegration, which is included in the DDR package. Hence, they are stigmatised and labelled as ‘damaged goods’, ‘bush wives’, ‘unmarriageable’, etc. It is much worse for girl mothers who return with children labelled ‘bush babies’ and are rejected by their community members.

All in all, peacebuilding efforts remain gender-blind, and one must consider whether the end goal of so-called peacebuilding ventures like the DDR is long-term peace. This raises critical unanswered questions, such as: What are the underlying knowledge and principles used to address gender issues in peacebuilding? How are the categories of difference constructed? By whom and for what purpose? What are the implications of these on girl soldiers and sustainable peace in general? Such questions need to be urgently addressed in studies aimed at investigating gender imbalances in post-conflict peacebuilding.



Beckley, E.M and Oluwaniyi O.O (Forthcoming). ‘The Rhetorics of Education for Girl Ex-Combatants in Sierra Leone’s DDR Programme’. Africa Spectrum: SAGE.

Beckley, E.M. 2021, “DDR and the Education of Ex-Combatant Girls in Africa” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Women’s Studies, eds. O. Yacob-Haliso & T. Falola, 1st edn, Springer Nature, Switzerland, pp. 178.

Haer, R. 2017, “The study of child soldiering: issues and consequences for DDR implementation”, Third World Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 450-466.

Oluwaniyi, O. 2019, “Women’s Roles and Positions in African Wars” in The Palgrave Handbook of African Women’s Studies, eds. O. Yacob-Haliso & T. Falola, First edn, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, pp. 85-105.

Tickner, J.A. 1992, Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security, Columbia University Press, United States of America.

[1] This blog article is based on research I conducted for my Master’s degree five years ago, on further research I am conducting in pursuit of a PhD on gender, conflict, and peacebuilding, as well as that of other researchers in this field.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Esther M. Beckley is a final-year PhD researcher at the University of Malta. She is also a visiting Research Fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her areas of expertise include gender, conflict, child soldiers, postconflict peacebuilding and development, international interventions in conflict contexts, etc., with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Women’s Week 2023 |“I am a girl, not a woman”: how recognizing diverse girlhoods can foster the inclusion of young mothers in debates on womanhood and girlhood.

Women’s Week 2023 |“I am a girl, not a woman”: how recognizing diverse girlhoods can foster the inclusion of young mothers in debates on womanhood and girlhood.

In Uganda, young mothers are predominantly called women, although some young mothers contest that representation and prefer to be called girls.  The normative insistence on categorizing young mothers as women ...

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, here’s a list of articles we’ve published on women’s struggles for gender equality

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, here’s a list of articles we’ve published on women’s struggles for gender equality

By Posted on

Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated globally. To mark the occasion, we’re showcasing the blog articles on women’s struggles for gender equality that we’ve published on Bliss over the past ...

Transformative Methodologies | Professional indigenous women acting to transform urban spaces in Mexico: methodological reflections

Research practices often still do not adequately recognize the multiple points of views, experiences, and knowledges of those we work with. In the process, the meanings that people give to their own lives and to reality are often overlooked, which silences subjective interpretations. In this blog, we share some reflections on the methodological process developed while carrying out a project about the right to the city with indigenous women in Guadalajara, Mexico. Thinking of research as a living system comprising numerous collaborative gears turned and interlocked by different types of support can help us do research more mindfully and responsibly.

In 2022, we started a research project focused on understanding the main barriers professional indigenous women face in accessing goods and services in cities, especially relating to higher education, work, and mobility. Our point of departure was the systemic gender-based exclusion that exists in Latin American metropolises, and more in particular the gender-based discrimination experienced in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The project was financed by ISS-EUR.

We interacted with five professional indigenous women: E.B. (Rarámuri) from the state of Chihuahua, A.G. and S.G. (Ñoo da´vi) and N.O. (Zapoteca) from Oaxaca, and D.E. (Totonaca) from Veracruz. They either moved to or were born in Guadalajara. All of them have been involved in specific projects to build diverse and gender-equal urban spaces. In both individual and collective encounters, we jointly problematized the concept of the ‘Right to the City’.[1] We did this from a feminist intersectional perspective to understand and question the constraints women face while living and moving around in cities, particularly in relation to gender, social class, and race power structures. Together, we looked for new ways of understanding and  transforming such realities. One of our common agreements was the relevance of highlighting the contributions that professional indigenous women as active participants make to modifying urban spaces, instead of exclusively looking at the barriers faced.

This triggered us to reflect on our methodological process more broadly, and we came across the concept of ‘collaborative gears’ as an analogy for a mechanism that sets in motion innovative ways of doing research while acting towards addressing social problems. In our project, this premise was materialized by working with women who engaged in critically thinking about how to create culturally diverse and equitable urban spaces. Our different contexts, professions, positions, and understandings about the Right to the City were the points of departure and strengths from which we built our common arguments and proposals.

This approach is what we consider a transformative methodology – one that can also be used to reveal the role of those who are less recognized, both in collaborative networks and in research processes. For us, recognition, care, and respect were essential factors to mobilize a living system of knowledge production.


Transformative Gears

The initial gear we identified was our connection as two Mexicans doing PhD research at ISS-EUR in The Netherlands to each other. As colleagues and friends, we were able to share and discuss our academic projects on multiple occasions. We have both worked using feminist methodologies – Marina’s research is based on collaboration, respect, and care and Azucena’s on the value of the embodied experiences of women to transform urban spaces and mobilities. Our common interests led us to develop ‘The Right to the City and Indigenous Women: Mapping Racism’.

Then, the gears kept moving with the support of Prof. Karin Arts (ISS-EUR) who joined and helped us to materialize the initiative. The experience of Prof. Arts as a researcher and her punctual advice guided our general reflections and helped us to consolidate the conceptual framework of the project. Her assistance in navigating institutional (administrative) processes was important, too.

At the same time, the trajectories, knowledges, and perspectives of every one of the five professional indigenous women with whom we interacted constituted invaluable bases for shaping and shifting the research. E.B. is a bachelor student in Urban Design and is part of NUCU (Our Cultures), a collective of college students from indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities. A.G. obtained a BA degree in Educational Sciences and S.G. has a BA  in Business Administration. Both A.G. and S.G. are part of the collectives JIU (Indigenous Urban Youth) and ÑOI, Cultura en tus Manos (Culture in your Hands), a collective of indigenous women. N.O. has a BA in History and an MA in Gender and Development. She works as a librarian at the state university. And D.E. has a BA in Pedagogy and an MA in Educational Research. She works in a public entity that coordinates and promotes public policies for the sustainable development of indigenous peoples in Jalisco.

The motion of the gears has been sustained by the joint inputs and efforts of every collaborator in this project.


‘Transformative’ also means action

Four concrete actions and outputs resulted from the methodological process:

  1. a collective article for the blog Resistencias y Mujeres Profesionistas Indígenas (Resistances and Professional Indigenous Women) with concrete proposals to build inclusive and diverse cities.
  2. the creation and publication of the maps of urban mobility and experiences of each participant in Cartofem.
  3. this text which all revised and agreed with, and
  4. a co-written academic article.


To think further… things to consider

We identified several complexities in the process of carrying out collaborative and contextual research. Academia in general does not provide sufficient time, material, and financial resources for developing practices grounded in the experiences of marginalized communities such as indigenous women. For instance, the weaving of networks, initiation and maintenance of dialogues, reflection, rethinking nuances derived from listening to and collaborating with research participants, writing, validating drafts with every participant, translating between different languages, and considering time zones all require a lot of time and economic resources that do not correspond to academic deadlines and budgets.

Yet, while being a challenge, collaboration from and through diversity is also a learning process and a contribution to feminist and transformative methodologies. Transformative methodologies should entail a respectful and caring way of producing knowledge that ensures that contexts and realities are represented from multiple perspectives. That is why we organized our project in such a way that all the participants and collaborators were recognized and had a say in what the research was about, how it was carried out, and why it took place. For us, this is just the first of many (sets of) gears necessary for a very much-needed alternative way of conducting research and transforming current academic practices.

[1] We understand the Right to the City as the entitlement to access, inhabit, transit, and to participate in urban settlements.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Azucena Gollaz Morán is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and an Associate Professor at ITESO University. Her research interests focus on gendered embodied experiences, gendered mobilities and sustainable cities. She has specialized in mobile feminist mapping methods to understand gendered and intersectional geographies of exclusion. Azucena is currently conducting research about Gendered and Intersectional Embodied Daily Urban Mobilities Experiences in Guadalajara, Mexico. More information about the project can be found at: https://cartofem.com/en_us/.


Marina Cadaval Narezo is a Mexican PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies -Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS-EUR) in The Netherlands where she also completed a master’s degree in Social Policies for Development. Her action-research passion around the tensions of gender, race and class in education policies derive from her involvement in the first graduate scholarship programs in Mexico aimed at indigenous people. She is interested in producing knowledge from a collaborative and feminist perspective considering diversity and care as main values (https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-82654-3_7).  She has also participated in several selection committees in higher education and advised educational policies.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.