In “War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out From the Ruins of War”, photographer Ann Jones recounts her experience with the International Rescue Committee in post-conflict communities around the world. The project, named “A Global Crescendo: Women’s Voices From Conflict Zones”, focuses on empowering women to describe their experiences in war, specifically dealing with gender based violence and discrimination, as well as chronicling the differential experience of women in war. Working alongside the IRC’s gender programs and women’s mobilization, Jones provides local women’s groups with digital cameras and forums to discuss their communities. These dialogues are driven by local women who describe their hardships – rape, violence, poverty, and fear. But through these discussions, their hopes also emerge; the education of their children, opportunities for business, and the creation of positive female role models for their daughters. Underlying all of these discussions is the desire to be heard and a gradual transition of powerlessness and resignation to women defining their futures and their communities, a crescendo of voices demanding change.
Jones focuses on telling individual’s stories to describe a larger tale, starting with her own. Jones’ father, a veteran of World War I, became an alcoholic, suffered from severe nightmares and insomnia, and beat Jones and her mother for the rest of his life. Jones reflects on her experience as a driving factor in studying the effects of war on women, stating, “[the] violence of was does not end when peace is declared. Often it merely recedes from public to private life.” In places like Côte D’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burmese refugee camps on Thailand, and Iraqi refugee camps throughout the Middle East, Jones describes the wars and conflicts that have defined these nations, and the women who are left behind. These women describe their individual and collective experiences with violence, first through timid discussions and broad framing questions then through their photographs, catching evidence of physical and structural violence in their communities. Photographs ranged from exhibiting the unpaid labor of women and rape victims cast out by their families to the disintegration of their physical community and graphic images capturing husbands beating wives. Also captured were the women’s hopes; daughters learning to read, a female bureaucrat focused on infrastructural development in Liberia, and men sharing work traditionally reserved for women. Jones and the IRC then provided these women’s groups not only opportunities to publicly exhibit these photographs, but also to describe what they represent to the men of their communities.
The book recognizes the positive effects of empowering women to not only describe their problems, but to empower them to advocate for positive change. Photography allows individuals to articulate problems in a profound yet simple way, a program called “critical exposure”, and translating photographs and stories into evidence for women’s differential experience in wartime. The book successfully forces empathy from the reader, but at the same time educates on the underlying causes of this structural violence against women. Poignant stories of empowered women declaring that they didn’t need the camera to speak anymore, saying “I am the camera,” or relating heartbreaking stories of the gruesome extremes of violence. Jones uses this as a device to mobilize and impassion other women of the world. Jones, however, plays into a gender archetype. In Jones’ experience, all men are violent, ignorant of women’s problems, dismissive, or antagonistic. Men are fatalist, disinterested in their families and communities, and are the only instigators of discrimination and violence. Women are victims or survivors. Only in a few exceptions are they leaders, and they are never described as participating in the perpetration of violence against other women, or continuing the cycle of gender preference. In one particular example, Jones discusses with an Ivoirian women’s group about a women and her children who are moved to the edge of the village, ostracized and unsupported by the community and unable to feed her family. While her husband held the main responsibility for her expulsion (in this case because his wife was raped), the women of the community do not provide her support, do not offer to feed her or her children, and are reluctant to advocate on her behalf. Jones does not find this relevant, but the women accept this and allow it to continue. This attitude highlights a prevailing theme with feminist perspectives regarding contemporary conflict; politics of identity, particularly in the case of women, can be incredibly limiting in preserving equality. The works inadvertently promote equity not equality. By insisting on discussing war and violence through a gendered lens, all other lenses are discounted and the discussion is distilled from a larger discourse on war, violence, and reconciliation. Jones focuses on promoting participation in rural communities, excluding large urban centers and the experiences of urban women in contributing to the voices of post-conflict communities. What Jones excels at, however, is providing a voice to the local participants in conflict, not just from an international or national perspective. While the book fails at objectivity, Jones recognizes that her voice, like the women with whom she worked, could advocate for change in accepting violence against women.
At times the descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated against women are difficult to bear, but is true to these women’s experience. It is true to the horrors of modern war. Jones’ candor and empathy are what compels the argument, but the story is told more as she listens to the women’s groups describe their experiences and their photographs. The project’s concept is absolutely fascinating, and it simplifies a very complicated process of articulating a community’s problems in a way that empowers women to become advocates for change. The book illustrates what a critical mass of women looks like, and the global crescendo of joined women’s voices can make demanding change.
For more information on Ann Jones, check out her website or the book’s site. For more information on the International Rescue Committee and how they work to eliminate violence against women, look at www.theirc.org. All photo credits belong to Ann Jones, the IRC, or the participants of the Global Crescendo project.
As a participant in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I will be posting on issues related to gender based violence and opportunities to get involved with ending violence against women around the world. Check out the series here.