Children and Youth on the Frontline

Article excerpt

Jo Boyden and Joanna de Berry (eds). Children and Youth on the Frontline. Berghahn Books, 2004. 274 pp.

Children and Youth on the Frontline consist of narratives rooted in anthropological theory and ethnographic research on war and displacement. It discusses how young ex-combatants fare in the aftermath of their warring experience. These are direct accounts of informants from Angola, Burma, Guatemala, Jordan, Kosovo, Liberia, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. Unlike others who portray young participants in war as coerced, vulnerable and even reluctant partakers, the authors of this work employ more complex considerations. They place less value on the youth's chronological age as a factor influencing their vulnerability. Boyden and de Berry make this point as follows: "Even when confronted by appalling adversities, it is revealed that many are able to influence positively their own fate and that of others who depend on them...The overwhelming lesson is that war does not inevitably destroy all that it touches, and that while war causes many to become extremely vulnerable, vulnerability does not itself preclude ability."

Each of the five parts of the book has a different emphasis. In part one, the focus is on how the context of the war impacts children. In chapter one, Gillian Mann examines the current knowledge base on children that are estranged from their parents during wartime and uses this as a backdrop to critique the generalization of childhood experiences that fails to pay attention to contextual and cultural differences. Mann explores narratives on child rearing practices, specifically delegated or shared parenting among members of a family system, and makes a salient case for the emotional and practical benefits of this tradition to intra-familial relationships. Situated in Gorongosa, Central Mozambique, the second chapter by Victor Igreja deals with the protracted and manifold civil war experience of informants. Focus is placed on how war robbed citizens of Gorongosa of valuable cultural resources, which endows community members with shared identity and provides unit cohesiveness. This loss of precious cultural resources produced negative outcomes for the people of Gorongosa. It contributed to "community violence, marital instability, infant malnutrition, and sexual abuse" (23), including drought.

Part two is devoted to understanding the susceptibility of young women to sexual abuse during war and their strengths in surmounting such violence. The experiences of young girls from the Teso region in Northeast Uganda are the focus of the third chapter written by Joanna de Berry. She argues that the conceptual basis for children's vulnerability is sparse because the literature fails to strike needed balance between biological and environmental considerations. De Berry offers that the vulnerability of these young girls flow from the fact that the Ugandan war in question eroded protective factors and institutional supports that are intended to guard against sexual abuse and violence. Chapter four is an account of war-affected adolescent girls in Kosovo, where the authors, Aisling Swaine and Thomas Feeny, latch onto the same theme as De Berry. Although they acknowledge unique and profound ways that war affects their informants, they also note that the girls in their study were battered and harmed physically and psychologically, similarly because the war degraded and tarnished required protective factors and resources.

Part three includes chapters five, six and seven, where the emphasis is on cultivating a conceptual understanding of childhood drawing on the experiences of child soldiers in Mozambique and Uganda. Chapters five and six are products of two diverse Mozambican contexts, involving different combatants and situated in separate historical periods. Jessica Schafer (chapter five) and Harry West (chapter six) call for a reevaluation of the way in which the existing research literature is leaning towards a generalized notion that young combatants participate in war against their will. …