2. Responding to Armed Conflicts

 Part two of a two part series examining the work of Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Center, and Dyan Mazurana, the Center’s research director for gender, youth, and community, on the intersections of global warming, natural disasters, and armed conflict in developing nations.

Dyan Mazurana, with her daughter, Hadia.
Dyan Mazurana, with her daughter, Hadia.

“Research shows that victims of serious crimes – torture, disappearance, sexual violence, direct attacks that leave significant physical and mental injuries – get knocked so far back, their recovery is inhibited even compared to other war affected populations,” said Dyan Mazurana, professor at the Fletcher School and research director for gender, youth, and community at the Feinstein International Center of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.  “Right now international interventions miss this, and some of the most vulnerable portions of the population are unable to access recovery and development initiatives that are put in place after the fighting stops.  They and their families fall further behind.”

Mazurana is working to change that, partnering with governments, agencies, and human rights and humanitarian organizations to improve efforts to assist people affected by armed conflict.  In addition to her research, Mazurana teaches at The Fletcher School, examining the impact of armed conflict on civilian populations and local, national, and international responses, using gender as a primary mode of analysis.

Her interest in this area began while doing research in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, and northern Uganda.  Mazurana saw firsthand the many problems “child soldiers” – children and youth associated with fighting forces – were experiencing, particularly the females, many of whom were forcibly recruited or joined as a means to survive the war.

“Almost nothing was known about `girl soldiers,’ the focus was all on boys and young men,” she said. “Internationally, we had a poor idea of what their experiences were or what to do to best assist them. But on the ground, we could clearly see that there were significant numbers of girl in the armed groups.”  Mazurana and her co-authors’ research  provided some of the first data on the experiences of these girls and women, work which was used in a number path-breaking international reports to reshape thinking and action on youth associated with fighting forces.

While as she was undertaking that work, Mazurana was invited to co-author the UN Secretary-General’s study on Women, Peace, and Security.  “It was the first time the Security Council had ever requested that kind of information,” she said.  “Collaborating with experts around the world, we examined the effects of armed conflict on women and girls, the specific protections guaranteed to them by international law during armed conflict, and the roles they play both during conflicts and in the peace processes.  We found that many conflict and post-conflict interventions were gender-blind, despite the fact that women and girls have very different experiences of conflict than do men and boys.  The result was, programs were missing the mark.”

Mazurana’s work with conflict affected populations has deepened her interest in victim-focused methods of investigation and documentation of serious crimes and violations.  “We work closely with victims and their families to understand how the crimes were committed, by whom, and how they have been affected,” she said.  “That includes paying attention to their physical and mental health, livelihoods, social relations in the community, and the possibilities for their future.  We prioritize the victims’ understanding, and take seriously their input into how best to carry out this work and what results are meaningful to them and their families.”

“One area I’m increasingly involved in is documenting and understanding the need for medical rehabilitation for victims of serious crimes,” she said. “We know that these victims have different health needs than other members of the population, but then what?  There’s an urgent need to really understand the medical and rehabilitation requirements of people who have been tortured, mutilated, burned, or have bomb, gun, and blast wounds.  We literally have hundreds of thousands of people for whom there is no access to effective treatment and care, and for the most part their needs for post-conflict medical care have been completely ignored by governments and donors.”

Mazurana has joined with local organizations providing medical care to address these problems.  “Before we would know there were a lot of injured people, because a war had gone on for many years and civilians were heavily targeted.  But no one knew how many people, where they were, and what kinds of care they needed.  Now we can provide data on how many people are injured, their sexes, ages, and kinds of injuries they have, why they aren’t getting the treatment they need, and how their livelihoods have been impacted.  That is powerful information to bring to governments, NGOs and donors to advocate for real response and change.”

At the Feinstein Center, Mazurana is working with Peter Walker, helping aid agencies use sex and age information to improve their responses to crises.  The collaboration has already produced a major report, Sex and Age Matter, which has been widely cited by the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations.

“We know people have different experiences and needs when they suffer crises due to armed conflict and natural disaster,” said Mazurana.  “Twenty years of feminist research show us that sex and age are two major reasons for those differences.  Natural disasters are not gender neutral, take for example the 2004 tsunami.  In some regions, the overall death rate was 4:1 female to male.  In some of the most heavily affected areas, all the dead were female.  And that was because of gender roles – men were out of the houses and villages at the time the tsunami hit; many women were inside and got caught in their homes; women have longer clothing, which makes it harder to run or stay afloat; the children were with the women and they wouldn’t abandon their kids.  The result is many more adult and elderly women died, and that has significant implications for the families and societies they leave behind. Unfortunately, these facts were largely ignored by initial humanitarian response to the tsunami, which led to a series of negative outcomes for the survivors, particularly the girls.”

Global warming is contributing to more frequent and more severe disasters, and that means there is an ever increasing need for better assessments using more demographic data.

“Humanitarian aid remains largely anecdote rather than evidence driven, and that’s a real problem – wrong initial assessments push the whole response apparatus in the wrong direction.  We have to be as accurate as we can from the start,” she explained.

For Mazurana, active citizenship is at the core of her identity and work.

“I come from a Buddhist tradition that has very specific perspectives on social justice and activism,” she said.  “One of the precepts is to speak out and act where there is an injustice or harm to others occurring, even if there’s a risk to yourself.  It is not meant to encourage negligent risk-taking – when I’m in the field I take the security of myself, my team, and the people I am interviewing extremely seriously.  But a deep belief that we must take an active role in preventing, speaking out against, and responding to violence is in the background of everything I do.  It’s part of our belief in inner-being, that is, that we are profoundly connected to all people, and that our liberation and well-being is linked with theirs.  In conflict zones where I work, I often see aid workers separate themselves from the people around them in order to function.  I do the opposite, to make connections, to see these people and to listen to them as if they were my family members, to take great care in what happens in their lives.”