“Women and Children” Never

A review of Erin Baines’ Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

By Gretchen Baldwin

Too often, lives touched by violent conflict are neatly divided into binaries—victims and perpetrators, guilty and innocent, state and non-state, and so on. In the policy world, women in conflict are frequently placed in one side of those binaries–understood as innocent victims, inherently inclined toward peace. Those reductive assumptions show through in the oft-repeated phrase “women and children”–the UN Women program in Nigeria, for example, uses a single line of effort to “improve protection for women and children in conflict settings.” The conflation of women and children simultaneously infantilizes women and negates the complexity of children’s issues, and neither the phrase nor the sexist logic that underpins it should have any place in policy discussions. Instead, scholars and policymakers must work to disaggregate these categories and confront the multi-faceted realities of people embroiled in political violence.

A movement to understand conflict outside of the standard victim-perpetrator binary has emerged recently in the study of political violence and transitional justice. One of the movement’s major contributions has been to begin grappling with  “complex victimhood,” an approach that moves “beyond static categories of victim and perpetrator… to recognize contingency and agency within these categories.” Erin Baines, in her book Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda, strikes a blow against “women and children” framing and demonstrates how thinking about complex victimhood can improve our understanding of women as political actors in conflicts.

Baines analyzes women abducted in Uganda and integrated into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as their own political representatives, acting with agency while managing their relationships with the men of the LRA, their families and home communities, and their children. This is no small feat, and Baines navigates it impressively well. Discourse around the LRA tends to lean into familiar binaries. Publicity efforts like Kony 2012 revel in presenting a clear division between evil perpetrators and good victims, but Baines’ commitment to evaluating actors in the conflict on their own terms is a welcome corrective.

In one exemplary section, Baines offers her readers the story of Cwini, a senior wife (married to a high-level LRA commander) who was extremely well-respected throughout the movement. In early 2002, when the conflict had escalated and the LRA’s longevity was uncertain, Cwini spurned her favored status and escaped the group to a Ugandan army base along with her young daughter, who had asked Cwini to move them away from the encroaching violence. Her departure led nine other women to defect, along with their children, as well as inspired the surrender of almost 100 troops dispatched by her husband to kill her and recover the child. Cwini’s story breaks with the usual understanding and presentation of women as pursuing and achieving peace. Rather than seeking a peaceful outcome—surrender—because of her innate femaleness, Cwini made a series of political decisions within her own experience as it related to those around her; she was a powerful figure within the LRA, commanded respect, and moved freely within the organization, yet when the insurgency no longer offered a sustainable life for her and her family, she acknowledged that her positionality and politics had changed. Likewise, those who followed her in surrender did so because she was a leader whose political decisions carried weight in the camp. Others recognized that her decision was a litmus test for the staying power of the LRA, and therefore her departure signaled its weakening viability.

Baines’ commitment to telling Cwini’s story as an expression of Cwini’s actions in her own interest is both commendable and instructive. To understand Cwini as a secondary figure in the “woman and child” mold, a victim whose only role is to be acted upon by perpetrators, would be analytical malpractice–her strategy, pursued for her reasons, led to a major setback for the LRA’s capacity for violence. Instead, Baines presents her subjects’ stories of violence, abduction, and life in a rebel group exactly as they do: as a fact of life, something that one necessarily participated in, and as merely one component of social belonging and power among so many. The voyeurism and essentializing that is so often applied to stories of women in armed movements is absent from this work.

While Baines’ book is a welcome contribution to a currently small body of work complicating the concept of political agency in wartime, policymakers may have a difficult time drawing clear lessons from it, as she is decidedly writing for academics. Buried in the Heart draws upon a too-varied theoretical base, engaging with more concepts than it can keep up with and distracting from the richness of its subjects’ storytelling. This, in conjunction with the somewhat confounding order in which it’s written, limits the book’s accessibility to a broader audience. The impulse is understandable—theoretical engagement indicates a deep connection to the meat of field research—but one that could be tempered for the sake of consistency in narrative and digestibility for a broad readership.

That said, policy practitioners should wade into Buried in the Heart all the same, both to understand Baines’ cases and to reflect on the many other frames the concept of complex victimhood offers for considering women in conflict. As Baines writes, “Stories of complex victimhood open space for dialogue, and to work towards the reconsideration of complicity, responsibility and possibility after atrocity.” When such stories move their audience to complicate gendered understandings of violent conflict, the peacebuilding policies can be pushed to expand political agency for all the people involved and better understand gender and armed conflict in terms of masculinities, femininities, and individual agency.

Today, our peacebuilding strategies are far from that ideal and we are drifting further. The hallmark framework for thinking globally about gender and conflict is the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1325, which calls for a “gender perspective” in UN peacekeeping operations while referring repeatedly to “women and girls” as objects affected by conflict. Neither men nor boys are mentioned at all in the document, despite its ostensible “gender perspective”, because men and boys are assumed to be driving conflicts. In the UN argot, “gender”, “women”, and “children” all become interchangeable euphemisms for victimization that erase the realities of the many women who fight and men who are victimized in gender-based violence from the policy discussion. Today, the US mission to the UN is pushing to collapse those categories even further, removing the possibility of masculine victimhood from UN policy by replacing the word “gender” with “women” throughout UN human rights documents. Buried in the Heart helps show why this would be such a foolish error.

Global security policies continue to be bogged down in a simplified version of womanhood in which women are, alongside children, innocent, victimized peacemakers. Work like Baines’ that rejects this is deeply necessary. She models ways of seeing that academics, practitioners, and policymakers alike should be emulating. Toward the end of Buried in the Heart, she writes: “The diverse and often unexpected political actions of complex victims affirm each individual’s uniqueness even as they are interrelated and form a community.” Consideration of such complexity is what creates the conditions for remaking political communities after mass violence and the pursuit of inclusive justice.


Gretchen Baldwin is assistant editor at the International Peace Institute. Her most recent research has focused on gender, armed conflict, and identity.

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