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.

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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 despite girlhood being a transitional phase locks young mothers in an in-between category, a space in which they can be neither girls, nor children, nor women. International Women’s Day celebrations further risk widening the gap between such girls whose daily realities centre on survival, writes Annah Kamusiime. The need to recognize diverse girlhoods is a first step in ensuring that girls are included in discussions on womanhood and girlhood.

During one of the interviews I conducted in 2021 for my PhD research on representations of young motherhood, Nandi, a 16-year-old Ugandan mother, told me, “Even though I am a mother, I am a girl, not a woman”. Her statement is an example of the agentic manoeuvres of girls whose voice remains silenced and their existence pushed to the liminal space – liminal because as mothers, they are in an in-between category where they are not girls anymore, nor children, and nor women, especially when they are not married.

Being a parent is the main marker of transition to adulthood/womanhood; in most of Uganda others also include menarche, a sexual debut, and wifehood. But the young mothers I spoke to did not consider themselves to be adults – women – despite having borne children. And, having borne children, they were no longer children themselves. As a result, their needs as young mothers may not be adequately addressed by efforts that separately target girls, children, or women. Young mothers who fall into none of the marked categories of girl, child, or woman thus face marginalization and exclusion.  In this article, I discuss why the recognition of a distinct category of diverse girlhoods is necessary to further their inclusion – also in celebrating International Women’s Day.


‘Girl’ or ‘woman’? How words make worlds

The terms we use are not neutral – the way in which words are combined allows for certain meanings to flourish and for others to be minimized. For instance, consider these two statements: “The girl-child is pregnant” versus “The girl is pregnant”. Both can be used to describe an adolescent mother. But an emphasis on a pregnant girl as a child (as the first statement does) may elicit a different interpretation and response when compared to using only the word ‘girl’. And often such word choices are deliberate. Words make worlds; struggles over meaning are not just about semantics – they are strategic, they have an effect, they shape discourses, actions and rhetoric, and they are contested. Thus, there is a need to be reflexive on how we frame different categories of persons because conceptions shape engagement.

Another example that shows how words matter for girls: While I was writing this article, my 18-year-old daughter read it and told me that at school, their teacher told them that a girl becomes a woman on the day of her sexual debut. I asked her whether that mattered and whether it would make a difference if a girl would be referred to as a woman or a girl. Yes, she said, ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ mean different things, and it matters which is used. As in the case of Nandi, the labels  ‘woman’ placed on a ‘girl’ has specific connotations – it means she engaged in sexual intercourse yet she is expected to be asexual, she is a mother at the wrong time, and she has ruptured normative notions of conceptions of ideal childhood and youth because she is expected to be innocent.  As a result, young mothers are stigmatized and are seen as a threat to the social morals and social order, which fuels their exclusion.

These two examples show that yes, the label of a woman that is placed on girls who are young mothers matter to them even when everyone else may not acknowledge it. Many of the young mothers I have spoken to choose to be called girls, not children, or girl-children, or women. The failure to consider the desire for this distinct categorization means that these young mothers’ voices remain unheard. I therefore argue that we need to reimagine and reconstruct girlhood as diverse and distinct in policy, practice, and debates at different levels-national and international.


Girls just wanna be girls

Several renowned scholars studying girlhood, including those highlighted by Claudia Mitchell, have advocated for what they have referred to as the girl-method. Rather than continue to lump girls under either the categories ‘children’, ‘young women’, or ‘women’, they argue that it is vital to add ‘girls’ as a distinct category.  This would remove girls from the shadows and place them in the centre of the discussion on diverse girlhoods, including those of young mothers.

My argument above does not mean that we should dismiss distinct moments like the UN Decade of the Girl Child (1991-2001) and International Day of the Girl Child. Indeed, such moments have been and continue to be an open platform for considering and rethinking issues girls face. However, a merger of ‘girl’ with ‘child’ in what is celebrated as the day of the ‘girl-child’ has been problematized as being passive, essentialist, and homogenizing. My sentiments of the ‘girl-child’ label are that it emphasizes their innocence, vulnerability, and dependency and brings out connotations of powerlessness while also infantilizing girls.

It also poses a risk of illuminating the ‘child’ and marginalizing the ‘girl’ because the ‘child’ may take precedence over the ‘girl’. There are words which are nice sounding, such as ‘girl-child’, and the nicer they sound, the more useful they are for those seeking to establish their moral authority. To counter the risk of applying labels to exclude and marginalize girls, the category ‘girl’ ought to be conceptualized, deconstructed, and reconstructed from their perspective.


How International Women’s Day can exclude girls

This is my first ever blog article. I decided to write it because I wanted to reflect on how International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations relate to the experiences of young mothers in urban poor locales, such as those that I have continued to engage with as part of my PhD research. In rethinking this year’s IWD theme (‘DigitALL: innovation and technology for gender equality’), several questions came to mind. For example, are girls considered in this debate on gender equality? How relevant is this debate on the role of technology and innovation for young mothers living in poor locales in Uganda where only 9% of the populations aged 15 years and above own a smart phone? Moreover, where only 8% of females use internet? And why should young mothers care about such discussions? How will tech-driven developments benefit them?

Unable to answer these questions, I decided to read up on International Women’s Day. What initially sparked IWD were spontaneous demonstrations to protest inhumane working conditions women faced and to press for improved working conditions. Other issues, such as the right of women to vote, were consequently included, and today IWD marks efforts to enact gender equality more broadly.

What is interesting is that International Women’s Day is assumed to be for everyone, everywhere, and is intended to celebrate and encourage collective action in pursuit of gender equality and extended rights for women. However, discussions about women’s suffrage, gender equality and parity are often far removed from the daily realities of many girls and women, including the young mothers in impoverished areas that I worked with – those who are primarily concerned with meeting their survival needs. In this way, specific categories of girls, or even women, including young mothers, may find themselves being excluded from efforts to enact gender equality and from celebrations of these.

International Women’s Day was initiated by working-class women and while it has since significantly highlighted the plight of women and efforts to close the gender gap, it is at a risk of becoming too universalized and corporatized to include women who face a range of intersecting struggles that stretch beyond voting rights and workplace equity. In celebrating International Women’s Day, it is important to remember those girls and women whose voices still go unheard, who move around in the shadows, and whose intersecting struggles leave them far behind.

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

About the author:

Annah Kamusiime is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS-EUR). Her research interests are in gender and adolescent and youth sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). She is also a Director of Programmes at Nascent Research and Development Organization Uganda.

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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 five years. We hope that the articles inspire further action and discussion. Happy International Women’s Day!

Seed keepers, memory keepers: native women and food sovereignty | Leila Rezvani | March 8, 2019

When North America was colonised, the relationship of indigenous people with food was also colonised. But a group of women acting as seed keepers for their communities are fighting back, practicing decolonisation in their daily work and addressing the legacy of food colonisation through the reclamation of seeds and the traditions, practices, and affective relations that nurture human-plant-environment relationships and keep Native communities thriving, healthy, and connected.


Dilemmas for aid agencies working in Afghanistan under Taliban’s gender apartheid rule | Dorothea Hilhorst  | January 12, 2023

In late December 2022, the Taliban announced that aid organizations would no longer be allowed to employ women. It was the next step in a series of measures that make it increasingly impossible for Afghan women to study, live or think independently. In response, many aid organizations have stopped their work, others are continuing. What will be the effect of all this and where are the boundaries for continuing assistance?


Why gender matters to social movements | Stacey Scriver and G. Honor Fagan | January 20, 2020

There are right and left, radical and conservative social movements at work in today’s volatile and unequal world. Whether directed towards a transformative social justice agenda or not, social movements themselves do not exist outside of the structures of power. Even among social movements directed towards deep social justice, gender inequality remains a key concern, since gender-related inequalities persist, both within the movements themselves, as well as in their recognition, support and the response to them.


Morocco’s ‘ninjas’: The hidden figures of agricultural growth | Lisa Bossenbroek and Margreet Zwarteveen | December 6, 2018

In Morocco’s Saïss region an agricultural boom is unfolding, premised on a process of labour hierarchisation shaped along gender lines. Female wageworkers find themselves at the lowest strata and take little pride in their work and are stigmatised. In such a context, how are rural women able to engage in agricultural wage work without losing their dignity and without being stigmatised? What can we learn from their daily working experiences?


Professional indigenous women acting to transform urban spaces in Mexico: methodological reflections | Azucena Gollaz and Marina Cadaval | March 7, 2023

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.


‘Empty’ laws and Peruvian women’s ongoing struggle for therapeutic abortion | Zoya Waheed and Romina Manga Cambria | March 15, 2019

Laws and regulations are policy tools that are seen as strong and effective in securing rights, but should we assume that this is always the case? Looking at therapeutic abortion, evidence from Peru leads us to believe otherwise. Legislation of protection laws often fails to be translated into practice.


Moving beyond women as victims in post-conflict peacebuilding efforts in Liberia | Christo Gorpudolo | January 27, 2020

Liberia, a war-torn country for much of the 1990s, initiated several post-conflict peacebuilding programmes with the hope of building sustainable peace. But a study of the Palava Hut Program as a transitional justice mechanism showed that such efforts can be thwarted by the reduction of women to victims of war. The opportunity to rebuild gender relations damaged during wars can be missed in the process. Besides rethinking the link between women and victimhood, women’s inclusion in peacebuilding programmes based on lived experiences can help to equalize men and women in the peacebuilding process, argues Christo Gorpudolo.


Reclaiming the space for feminism in development practice: the role of ‘femocrats’ | Clara Mi Young Park | July 1, 2019

In spite of international pledges to gender equality and development that leaves no one behind, the current wave of populism and autarchy is materializing in the form of resurging patriarchy, oppression and exclusion. This has spurred a counter movement of feminist activism across the globe. At this juncture, this article discusses the role of feminists in development organizations that can and must also do their part to promote change that is premised on gender and social justice.


‘EleNão!’ ‘NotHim!’ Women’s resistance to ‘the Brazilian Donald Trump’ |  Marina Graciolli de Paiva | October 2, 2018

The run-up to the Brazilian presidential election to be held on 7 October reminds spectators of the coming to power of Donald Trump two years ago. Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician, is running for the election, and while many are cheering him on, others are watching aghast as he heads the polls. In this article, Marina Graciolli de Paiva looks at the implications of the election of Bolsonaro and shows how the Brazilian women’s resistance movement is countering the rise of a fascist government.


Why should there be spaces for queer women, led by queer women? | Heather Tucker | November 17, 2017

NGO’s which receive funding from HIV interventions as well as international LGBT donors are interested in expanding their diversity efforts, for instance by including queer women in their training on human rights.  However, NGOs underestimate the working of intersectionality and fail to grasp why it is important for queer women to be understood on their own terms, recognizing their specific problems and enabling their separate organizations.


#MeToo and the need for safe spaces in academia | Brenda Rodríguez, Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry | June 2, 2020

Initiated back in 2006 by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 during the sexual misconduct scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein when actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers from across the world to share their experiences of sexual harassment. As the hashtag went viral, a number of others also emerged, shedding light on sexual harassment in specific sectors. This included the #MeTooAcademia and #ScienceToo hashtags that highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment in academic spaces and the need for change.


The power and limits of women’s collective agency in fragile contexts: from pastoralist communities to refugee environments | Holly A Ritchie |March 6, 2018

Women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s pathways of social and economic empowerment. Yet, with limits to collective agency, Holly Ritchie argues that the emergence of broader women’s movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.


Bewitched, bothered and bewildered: a study of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana | Issah Wumbla | January 14, 2019

Witchcraft accusation and consequent banishment that still persists globally can be viewed as a form of violence against women and children. While it is believed that women are accused of witchcraft mainly due to their socio-economic status, an intersectional analysis of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana shows that other factors also contribute.


Revolution and music: women singing out in Sudan | Katarzyna Grabska and Azza Ahmed A. Aziz | August 12, 2019

With the attention to Sudanese women musicians actively participating in the current uprising in Sudan, this article reflects on the history of women’s involvement in music and how their performances have acquired political claims over time.


When children have children: Can postponing early motherhood help children survive longer? | Sofia K. Trommlerová  | September 21, 2020

In 2010, approximately 34% of young women in developing countries – some 67 million – married before reaching 18 years of age. An additional 14-15 million women will marry as children or adolescents every year in the coming decades. Child marriages lead to pregnancies and childbirths at an early age, which can have negative consequences for the health of both mother and child. Does the age at which motherhood takes place matter, and can postponing motherhood into adulthood help increase the chances of children surviving beyond five years of age? My study of teen pregnancies amongst Bangladeshi girls shows that age does matter, and it matters quite a lot.


There’s no stopping feminist struggles in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic | Agustina Solera and Brenda Rodríguez Cortés | December 10, 2020

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign draws to a close today, Agustina Solera and Brenda Rodríguez Cortés reflect on the challenges women in Latin America have faced over the past year and how, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they have stood strong as ever, braving the particularly difficult conditions that they have had to face this year.


Challenging humanitarianism beyond gender as women and women as victims | Dorothea Hilhorst, Holly Porter and Rachel Gordon | March 7, 2018

Problematic assumptions related to women’s position and role in humanitarian crises are unpacked in a special issue of the journal Disasters on gender, sexuality and violence. The main lesson drawn from the special issue is that aid actors should tread carefully and seriously invest in their capacity to carefully monitor the intended and unintended effects of programming on gender relations.


Feminist political ecology in research and action | Wendy Harcourt | March 8, 2018

On 8 March 2018, Professor Wendy Harcourt will be inaugurated at the International Institute of Social Studies, becoming one of the few female professors at the Erasmus University. This blog is a reflection of her personal journey to professorship and on the ‘Well-being, Ecology, Gender and Community’ (WEGO-ITN) project that she heads, which will be launched on the same day at the ISS.


Menstruation: from concealed topic to part of the public agenda | Jacqueline Gaybor | March 5, 2018

Menstruation and its multiple social, economic, environmental, health and technological dimensions surprisingly is starting to be discussed globally, in multiple arenas and under very different and sometimes opposing frameworks. But how is this issue positioned at this early stage of an emerging research agenda? Which actions have been implemented? This blog is a reflection on the importance of thinking outside the box.


There’s so much we still have to do to address gender injustices once and for all | Lize Swartz  | March 8, 2021

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, but as always, there are some positive developments we can commend and others that we should be horrified about. The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly exacerbated gender injustices and created new gender inequalities. At the same time we can fortunately witness the strengthening of discussions on gender relations and things we’re still doing wrong (and those things we’re setting right). We’ve reached the tip of the iceberg and the rest – the assumptions and silences that perpetuate gender injustices – lurk beneath the surface, a silent colossus standing between us and real progress. In this post, we celebrate attempts to chip away at those parts of gender relations that are less visible, but just as crucial to address.

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

About the author:

Bliss, the blog of ISS on global development and social justice, aims to provide a space where research ideas and findings are brought to the development community in a timely way. With the blog, ISS will address different audiences in policy, practice and the public at large. The blogs are grounded in ongoing research and speak to broader implications for current development trends and issues. Most importantly, the blogs will continue to uphold the best of ISS traditions: to (re)present the voices of people and communities that are marginalized in development.

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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.

Photo taken by the authors

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.

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