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Representing Children of Genocide

October 30, 2009

This week I served on a panel discussion for Jonathan Torgovnik’s photo exhibit on the Rwandan genocide at the Woodrow Wilson School Bernstein Galley at Princeton University. The exhibit contained extraordinary photographs of female genocide survivors and their children born as a result of genocidal rape.

There is also a extremely evocative video available here.

I was asked to comment critically on the exhibit and the accompanying book, Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape. The review I presented was mixed.

On the one hand the exhibit is very much needed. Children like these are growing up in conflict zones wherever sexual violence has been endemic, and there is a dearth of attention to their needs by the international community. Torgovnik’s images and accompanying narratives urge us never to forget the horrific events of 1994, and never to under-estimate the intergenerational consequences of such violence.

On the other hand I worried that the photos and accompanying texts reproduce two narratives about children of genocidal rape that draw attention away from their own human rights – something I’ve written about recently in a Millennium article. Though references to the lives of the children are sprinkled through Torgovnik’s book, the majority of the testimonies are about the rapes themselves (situating children as products of genocide rather than as children who need help) and the struggles of the mothers in the aftermath (situating children as the source of these struggles rather than the victims of their mother’s neglect, abuse and stigma from the community).

The women’s needs and the earlier question of genocide prevention are extremely important and neglected topics in their own right. But conflating them with the topic of the children diverts our attention, I fear, from the child rights dimension of the issue. The book should perhaps have been titled “Intended Consequences: Rwandan Women Raising Children Born of Rape,” if the focus was to be on the mothers.

A child rights view of this issue would begin from a different starting point, I argued. It would:

1) Make the children’s present lives, not their mother’s traumas, the frame of reference. Rather than regurgitating the troubles from which they resulted, explore how the social stigma around their origins affects their everyday social, psychological and political worlds and what this means for their human rights and healthy development. As I spoke to Torgovnik afterward, it was obvious that his interviews with the mothers had allowed him to glean considerable data on precisely these factors; I would have liked to see them more front and center in the materials that resulted from his project – or to see other projects that do take this perspective.

2) Include children born of rape as a diverse category. This project focused only on children kept by their mothers, but research has shown that many of these kids end up with other caregivers facing a different range of issues. (Admittedly, following the larger category of children born of genocidal rape is a much taller order, and as Torgovnik rightly told me afterward, you must start somewhere.)

3) To the extent possible, allow children to tell their own stories. Of course this often isn’t possible for very small children, but these Rwandan kids are teenagers now and surely have thoughts about the genocide, about school, about bullying, about discrimination, about relationships with their parents and siblings that could be a basis for understanding how they are doing relative to other kids growing up after a genocide – even without raising sensitive questions about things they may or may not understand. I worry when I see adults speaking about children, with children’s voices absent. Admittedly it can be extremely difficult to secure access to interviews with such children. Still, finding a way to let these children have a voice is going to be very important to really assessing their needs and strengths as we gradually move beyond treating them as an invisible population.

4) Represent children only in ways consistent with their view of themselves and not in ways that will contribute to their marginalization, and protect them from the harms that can come from participation in research studies about sensitive topics. Here my view of Torgovnik’s work is mixed. His choice not to interview the children as such, while it prevented them from exercising participation rights, was meant as a form of protection. He also took efforts to make certain the photos would not be distributed in Africa, so the hope is that the images will do some good in drawing donor and humanitarian attention to the issue without contributing to further stigma within local communities. But I wonder about whether video disseminated on the Internet can be controlled in this way, and I worry about the psycho-social impacts on a Rwandan teenager who gains access to images of him or herself online, now or later in life, next to text of his mother’s disparaging comments. Torgovnik’s answer to this is a thoughtful one – you have to weigh the very small likelihood of that happening despite your best efforts against the good that can come to the children as a population from advocacy attention to the problem.

Which brings me to:

5) Projects such as these should serve the goal of improving protective measures for children. On this point, Torgovnik is to be strongly commended. He has used the publicity from his work to create an NGO, “Foundation Rwanda” which channels money from Northern donors to pay for school fees for these children, who otherwise cannot access free schooling through the Rwandan government’s survivors’ program. So his project has made a concrete positive difference in many children’s lives. The money for the initiative is a direct result of donations received after the publication of his photos in the British and German press. The program is implemented confidentially, so it doesn’t mark the kids as recipients of such aid in a way that might risk a backlash. As such, it also provides an example of “best practice” that bigger child protection organizations could use if they chose, to counter their claim that it’s impossible to do programming for this population without doing them harm. I have written more about this path-breaking initiative here.

Ultimately, I think this project raises an important question in human rights advocacy: how to balance the dignity and participation rights of vulnerable or stigmatized populations with the desire to generate resources with which to promote their betterment. Thoughts?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.