On Mother's Day: A Message of Hope and Survival

We need to recognize that the respect accorded to our mothers is compromised by the suffering of mothers in places like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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It is no secret that women have suffered disproportionately from conflict throughout the history of warfare. At first glance, this bleak reality leaves little excuse for celebration on Mother's Day.

But in fact, Mother's Day is an ideal time to take advantage of existing optimism and understand how our own celebration fits into an international and interdependent network of mothers. It is an opportunity to recognize that the respect accorded to our mothers is compromised by the suffering of mothers in places like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Because women are disproportionately affected by conflict, their experiences tell us stories about power politics, whether between US troops and local insurgents in Iraq, or armed groups in eastern DRC. They also tell us about economic hardships and changing social trends that we might otherwise overlook.

In a disturbing and uplifting article, the humanitarian organization World Vision recently chronicled the life of "Esther," a sixteen-year-old girl who lives with her newborn daughter in a crowded camp in eastern DRC. Motherhood to Esther means caring for her child with only occasional help from neighbors. It means she is reminded daily of the time she was raped and impregnated by armed soldiers, and it means learning to talk about rape despite widespread stigma within her community.

Mothers like Esther no longer collect firewood in safety, as mass rape has become the instrument of terror warfare used to uproot and disperse entire communities. According to the UN, unprecedented incidents of rape -- at least 6,766 cases were reported between June 2007 and June 2008 in Ituri province -- are devastating women's livelihoods, causing migration, disease, and death.

Throughout the DRC, the suffering of mothers like Esther has become a grim symbol of who is winning the struggle for power between rebels, government forces, and local militias. Amidst the fighting, armed groups continue to establish dominance over territory by raping en masse.

Still, the changing role of mothers in the DRC is not only shaped by rape. According to Nadine Puechguirbal, a Red Cross advisor on women and war, between 60 and 80 percent of women are also heads of household in the DRC, surely a result of men dying in conflict, fleeing home for safer terrain, or joining the lucrative coltan industry. Mothers are also sometimes community organizers, courageously speaking out against sexual terrorism and raising children alone despite the threat of violence.

Widespread violence has equally permeated women's lives in Iraq, where an unusually high number of widows has forever changed the role of mothers. The BBC estimates that since 2003, one hundred women a day have become widows, many of them struggling to earn an income, raise children, endure social stigma and avoid sexual abuse. A revealing BBC story describes the life of Nadia Hussein, a widow who lost her husband, three brothers, and baby due to burgeoning violence. Sadly, numerous other widows roam the streets of Baghdad begging for money to survive.

Some widows have also taken to suicide bombing, according to the BBC. This phenomenon results from family pressure and desperation over the loss of loved ones, as well as limited economic and social opportunity. As security slowly improves, some women have even become nightclub dancers, a livelihood that would have been a death sentence for women before the 2003 occupation, according to BBC reporter Mike Sergeant.

Since 2003 the experience of motherhood in Iraq has increasingly been a story of widowhood, divorce, and grief, with occasional resorts to violence. Mothers' experiences in Iraq tell us how devastation and distress have colored civilians' experiences in war, and how military occupation and local insurgency have damaged social and economic opportunities. The stories of mothers also tell us how women and men alike have rebuilt their communities to create a prosperous post-war Iraq.

As we celebrate our own mothers, we ought to celebrate the interconnectedness of all mothers, and recognize the relationship between a mother's well being and relative peace. This connection does not exist because women are naturally peace-loving and passively harmonious. It is because they are political actors themselves, and because they hold power over the next generation of peacemakers and perpetrators of violence.