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The gendered experience of conflict…

March 31, 2012

Madeleine Leonard describes a study done in North Belfast on children’s perceptions and experiences of safety and risk (and considers what strategies they employ for managing risky environments). Leonard notes that how children experience the risky places around them is gendered.

This struck me as interesting – and as potentially relevant with regards to looking at Young Adult Fiction that treats in violence, conflict and geographies of danger…. Leonard writes:

Notions of safety and risk have emerged as central concerns in modern childhood (Backett-Milburn and Harden, 2004; Valentine and McKendrick, 1997). The once innocent spaces of childhood such as streets, parks and other public places have become redefined as areas where childern are in potential danger from other children or from some of the adults usually defined as their protectors. Even the private spaces of childhood such as family homes have re-emerged as places of power and sites where the abuse of children by adults intimately connected with them becomes a distinct possibility (James and others, 1998). While the empirical evidence to demonstrate the frequency of the public and private risks confronting children falls far short of the moral panic surrounding notions of risk and safety, the upshot has been to locate contemporary childhood in increasingly risky environments.

How children use and manage spaces in areas of protracted conflict has not featured in much of the research on children’s relationships with surrounding environments. As Stephens (1997) pointed out, this reflects our wider ignorance about the daily lives of children in conflict situations. Issues of safety and risk take on new meanings in areas characterised by prolonged conflict.  Cairns (1996) for example made a distinction between interpersonal violence and inter-group violence. The former refers to violence between individuals known to each other while the latter refers to violence between individuals who are strangers to each other. Moreover, in the latter case individuals are targeted, not as individuals but as individual representatives of competing groups. While much of the literature on inter-group violence focuses on a world of adults, Garbarino and others (1991) argued that one of the most effective ways of ascertaining the effects of conflict on society at large is to look at its effects on children.” (432)

“In their research on the lives of young men in disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland, Reilly and others (2004) found that violence was a major risk factor in the lives of the majority of their respondents. Hence places of risk assume greater significance for boys compared to girls. As a result, in conflict societies, girls often experience higher levels of geographical freedom compared to boys and this goes against the general finding in children’s geographical movements that suggests that spatial movements of boys outstrip that of girls (see Matthews, 1986 for an overview of this literature). This often finds expression in children’s visual represenation of space whereby boys often produce more detailed and wide-ranging maps compared to girls, because of their wider geographical movements and the broader environmental freedom granted to them by their parents (Matthews, 1992). Matthews is careful not to equate these differing representations of space with essentialist differences between boys and girls’ ability to produce maps but suggests that ‘those children that roamed furthest from their homes, regardless of sex were the most skilled at environmental recall and representation’ (Matthews, 1992, p.168).” (441)

Leonard cites an example of this situation, then writes: …it is freedom of movement, rather than gender, that affects the ability of these children to produce accurate reflections of space in their everyday lives. The example also underlines the error of considering children as a homogeneous group. It has already been demonstrated that even within interface areas children’s experience of the conflict is dependent on how close their home is located to the edge of the interface. An added factor is gender, in that the conflict impacts differently on the movements of girls and boys. Indeed, in discussing street risks, girls were more likely to talk about the possibility of being raped by strange men than physically hurt by the conflict, while boys’ discourses around street risks tended to focus more on inter-community violence. These perceptions affected the movement strategies of both girls and boys with boys being more likely to impose self-restrictions on the geographical range of their daily movements.” (441)

In her concluding comments, she writes:

Geographical environments may affect positively or negatively the quality of children’s daily lives. As Philo (2000) pointed out, children’s geographies cannot be divorced from the societies in which they live their daily lives. This is not to suggest that childrene xperience the societies in which they live in similar ways. Class, gender and ethnicity are likely to affect children’s experiences of the immediate and wider geographical environment.” (443)

The everyday lives of children growing up in societies characterised by political conflict further demonstrate the heterogeneity of childhood within and across different social settings and how children demonstrate competency an agency in a range of diverse settings.” (444)

Ref: Madeleine Leonard (2007) ‘Trapped in Space? Children’s Accounts of Risky environments’ Children & Society 21, pp.432-445

Refer to blog Are children safe at home? for more of Leonard’s work and for a description of the ‘home’ as it affects children and childhood…

References mentioned above include:

Backett-Milburn and Harden, 2004; How children and their families construct and negotiate risk, safety and danger. Childhood 11 429-447

Cairns (1996) Children and Political Violence. Blackwell: Oxford.

Garbarino and others (1991) What can children tell us about living in danger. The American Psychologist 46: 376-383

Note also: Garbarino and others (1992) Children in Danger. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

Matthews, 1992,  Making sense of Place. Children’s Understandings of Large-Scale Environments. Harvester Wheatsheaf: Hemel Hemstead.

Philo 2000 The corner-stones of my world. Editorial introduction to special issue on spaces of childhood. Childhood. 7: 243-256

Reilly and others (2004) Young men as victims and perpetrators of violence in Northern Ireland: a qualitative analysis. Journal of Social Issues 60: 469-485

Stephens (1997) Editorial introduction: children and nationalism. Childhood 4: 5-17

Valentine and McKendrick, 1997 Children’s outdoor play: exploring parental concerns about children’s safety and the changing nature of childhood. Geoforum 28: 219-235


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