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 this country 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. The full story lives here: https://linaabirafeh.medium.com/mothers-day-musings-what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-mother-in-war-86d8ddacdf0a
Ukraine… forced migration is a crisis for women, and for mothers most of all. 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.”
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. 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.
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, and 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.
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.
Tigray… when bodies become battlegrounds. This situation is characterized by massacres, weaponized sexual violence, and ethnic cleansing. 90% of the population — over 5 million people — are in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. And, no surprise, the vast majority are women and children. 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.”
Myanmar… women resist, and violence persists. The continuation — and escalation — of sexual violence against women and girls, particularly the Rohingya is systematic abuse. 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.”
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.
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. And motherhood is a diverse role with a definition that is constantly in flux. The common theme is this: 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.