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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with J. Marshall Beier and Jana Tabak about their co-edited collection, Childhoods in Peace and Conflict

Our members, J. Marshall Beier (McMaster University, Canada) and Jana Tabak(State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), talk about their co-edited collection, Childhoods in Peace and Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).


Q: What is this edited collection about?

Through their various points of entry into children’s experiences of peace and conflict, the contributors to this volume challenge fixed and bounded understandings of childhood. Taking a range of different empirical and conceptual starting points, the borders of what children are and how they relate to their own lifeworlds are problematized so their complexities can be explored.

Of particular interest, children are analyzed as political subjects, and possible discontinuities between ‘places for children’ (designated as safe spaces by parents, state authorities, and international organizations) and ‘children’s places’ (as negotiated or constructed by children and adults) are brought to the fore.

Across varied empirical cases and contexts spanning sociopolitical time and space, the child-adult relationship, despite its power imbalance, is discussed in terms of ‘interdependencies.’ Even in armed conflict zones, children negotiate and resist the constraints of an inside/outside coding of spaces and hierarchies and reaffirm their relative autonomy within the boundaries that limit their choices, creating their own meaningful worlds and participating in the construction of the lives of those around them and of the societies in which they live.

While engaging with debates in critical approaches to international relations, childhood studies, anthropology, and other fields and disciplines, this book does not purport to overcome the dichotomies between children as vulnerable versus competent or dependent versus autonomous, but seeks to explore how these sorts of ideas about and practices around children and childhood have social and political currency and become determinant of possibilities (and the limits on possibilities) of specific kinds of subjectivities, life experiences, and objects.

Q: What made you initiate this edited volume?

Recognizing how challenging and uncomfortable it can be to contest the ontologies of childhood and the practices of protection based on them, one of our aims was precisely to confront narratives about children and childhood and to investigate their tensions, malleability, and contingencies. With this in mind, we saw the value in a volume that could offer explorations of a diverse set of empirical cases across the Global North and South, both within and beyond conflict zones, and the contribution this could make toward revealing children and childhoods as always bound up in the making, remaking, and unmaking of conflict (experienced as war, war preparation, war commemoration, and more).

Without discounting the importance of continuing work around issues of child soldiers and war-affected children in settings that, having dominated popular iconography and global public imaginaries, have tended to garner most attention, we wanted to get at the vast multiplicity of childhoods shaped by and shaping the navigation of peace and conflict in unique and often sui generis ways. ‘Finding’ children in contexts in which they have been less often sought, and perhaps even more seldom seen and heard, promises more nuanced understandings of political subjecthood and of its varied and complex forms.

Our hope is that this better equips us to critically engage the paradox of children’s simultaneous indispensability to and marginalization in global security practices. And populating peace and conflict with a fuller range of political subjects, we get to a deeper understanding of recourse to organized political violence and of efforts to manage, mitigate, and ameliorate its imprint upon social worlds and everyday lives.

Excerpt from the book (pages 5–7):

Civil emergencies, wars among them, always press demands on children and, in so doing, they can be tremendously illuminating. Though it seems somewhat strange to think about it in this way, there is a perhaps fortuitous aspect to the unforeseen circumstance that this volume has happened to come together at a time of acute uncertainty and disruption, layered over the demands and challenges of navigating peace and conflict. As research for the chapters that follow was conducted and, later, as they were being drafted, the world had not yet heard of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. By the time they were proceeding through the process of review and revision, however, we were in the grips of the declared COVID-19 pandemic. And, as they moved together into production toward publication of the book, hope inspired by the distribution of promising new vaccines came together with renewed lockdowns and disheartening news of the emergence and spread of a more transmissible mutated form of the virus.

Among its many lessons, the global health emergency that arose from the early months of 2020 onward brought complicated webs of interconnection, interdependence, and inequality into stark relief. In its uneven (and unevenly experienced) ebbs and flows, the pandemic revealed not only how circuits of local and global interaction enabled it to spread and to surge but also how structural inequalities left some groups or communities (and, within them, some individuals) more vulnerable. From the local to the global, it exposed material inequality and disenfranchisement from political power as important predictors of risk and of what would be demanded of whom. At the same time, it saw the urgent suspension of norms and routines of everyday life, including those affecting the regulation and governance of social agency.

As these and other circumstances and implications of the pandemic and the measures undertaken to address it have unfolded, it has been impossible not to see parallels in the insights to be drawn from the chapters herein, all which turn on varied experiences of children and childhoods shaped by and shaping peace and conflict. For many, children among them, COVID-19 manifested in ways similar to emergencies associated with armed conflict. Broadly, exigencies of the pandemic have frequently been cast as matters of human or national security whilst response measures are framed in terms that are highly militarized, often with direct appeal to storied wars of the past as exemplars of individual duty and sacrifice to collective aims (Beier 2021). The ubiquity of war metaphors in official and vernacular pandemic discourses (see Isaacs and Priesz 2020; Lohmeyer and Taylor 2020; Semino 2021) is not incidental. Rather, it reflects the important work war narratives and metaphors do in making exceptional measures intelligible and setting threat in externalized opposition to an idealized collective identity in ways that obfuscate inequality even as they generalize responsibility. War and war preparation, like pandemics, entail disruption, mobilization, and, of course, casualties.

Still, apart from its temporal coincidence with the later stages of this project, and whatever the material and discursive parallels, why pause to comment on COVID-19 at the outset of a book on distinctive experiences of children in peace and conflict? Here, we would point to a further important dimension of pandemic responses as particularly salient: direct appeals by sovereign power to children as indispensable social agents. In the early days of the declared pandemic, a number of national leaders called on the children of their countries to assume responsibility for a range of mitigation measures that included, among other things, practicing hand hygiene and physical distancing, supporting public health workers, personal and family emergency planning, and even reporting violations of public health orders.

Reminiscent of and, in some instances, rhetorically linked to the roles assumed by children in the World Wars of the twentieth century—from food conservation campaigns and scrap drives to agricultural labour and work in munitions plants—the summons to children to contribute in a new moment of civil emergency places their recognized subjecthood visibly in tension with their enduring disenfranchisement from social power (Beier 2021). We are thus urged to sustain affirmation of their agency together with recognition of their unique vulnerability, not losing sight of how the latter may bear disproportionately in their experience of the present emergency (see Lundy and Stalford 2020). These are sensibilities that likewise promise more nuanced readings of the cases of children navigating contexts of organized political violence, whether in zones of conflict, post-conflict, or relative peace and security.

The pandemic is instructive too for how it has exacerbated challenges faced by children in existing conditions of abjection the world over (see, for example, Börner et al. 2020). For those already experiencing war, forced migration, famine, climate disaster, or other such exigent circumstances, COVID-19 is folded in as a constituent of a complex emergency, characterized by coeval and intersecting crises straining the social infrastructure and resources necessary to address them. Like the pandemic, situations of armed conflict are not social contexts unto themselves, somehow flattening alterity in the way that appeals to war metaphors and narratives might suggest. Rather, they involve myriad intersections of position and prerogative, abjection and adversity, possibility and promise. They intersect also with complexities of lifeways and inclinations expressed in agential remit and, thus, produce unique and diverse expressions and experiences of peace and conflict alike. And this demands that we think beyond the iconic figures of the child soldier or the hapless child victim when we think about children’s experiences both populating contexts of peace and conflict and as important agential beings, variously making, remaking, and unmaking those contexts in all their complex exigencies.



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