What’s in a name?

I fly to Uganda tomorrow for 3 months to begin an investigative project that examines the efforts of NGOs and the Ugandan government to reintegrate female former child soldiers. The plan is to work closely with 5 of these women, to train them in basic photography, web design and blogging, and to enable them to tell their stories.

My biggest concern at present? I don’t know how to refer to these women.

We all hate to be stereotyped. But this universal habit becomes a particular issue when dealing with people who have survived atrocities. We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of an inappropriate label. I hate it when journalists refer to “rape victims” for example. Whilst I know their lives will never truly be the same, I’d bet that these women would loathe to be called victims. “Rape survivor” may be more appropriate as these women battle to overcome the physical and psychological trauma they’ve endured. However, even this more empowering label, risks offense by identifying these women solely in relation to what was undoubtedly one of the worst experiences in their lives.

The same dilemma surrounds the subject of child soldiers. The 1997 Cape Town Principles refer to a child soldier as “any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage.”

These principles make the important point that child soldiers aren’t restricted to one gender, and that you didn’t have to fight to be considered a child soldier.

But this 1997 definition still doesn’t help me. It was suitable in defining a child soldier in the bush, but it doesn’t truly address the complexity of the experiences these women are facing in post-conflict northern Uganda. Many single mothers struggle to look after the children they reared in the bush; many faced stigmatization in their communities upon their return; most struggle to find work; some even say life was better with the LRA.

The academic literature also doesn’t help me to define these women. I’ve come across countless labels in my background research – each with their own problematic connotations. In all I counted about 10 variations of a label:

…forced wives, forced mothers, child mothers, girl mother, forcibly involved girls, formerly abducted person, sex slaves, bush wives, former girl soldier, female former child soldier…

But “forced mother” suggests all pregnancies were involuntary. “Child mother” and “girl mother” suggest no association with an armed group like the LRA. “Sex slave” and “bush wife” are just plain offensive and one-dimensional. “Former girl soldier” implies they fought, they killed – many girls abducted by the LRA didn’t have combative roles. The most appropriate term seems to be “forcibly involved girl.”

I don’t honestly think there is a catch-all phrase for these women. And frankly I think that dwelling on a fitting term detracts from the stories these women have to tell.

These are women. Acholi. Resilient. Survivors of horrors I can’t even begin to fathom.

To hell with labels.