Researching/writing children in the context of the armed conflict in Swat Valley, Pakistan
I have collected data in the form of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with children aged 9-17 in Swat Valley, Pakistan, who lived through a phase of intense armed conflict and violence when the Pakistani Taliban basically set up a counter-regime in Swat from 2007-2009. My initial funding for the project came through CCPA travel funds and then I received both a Binghamton Universal internal grant and an external grant to continue my work. The data was collected in the 2009-2012 time frame, and currently I am writing an article based on that data.
While I was collecting my data I worked from the premise that children can actively shape their realities, although the extent to which they can do so is constrained by factors in their environment. Even then I was surprised by the eloquence of the interviews, especially the oral histories, the interviews where children narrated their life stories with minimal questioning on my part. Mainstream work on children has usually cast children as unable to speak for themselves: the thrust of most writing on children has been based on observations by adults or quantitative measures that render children as experimental subjects. More recently, what is called the “new sociology of childhood” has cautioned against the use of methodologies that make children “mute” and “invisible.” My research with children in the Swat Valley context centers around children’s voices: children in my writing are represented as social actors who can make meaning of the various facets of their lives.
At this point in time I am grappling with various theoretical lenses to analyze my data. Historically, research on children in armed conflict was heavily imbued by a biomedical paradigm that did not take into account sociological dimensions of conflict and its impact. In the last decade or so, a shift has occurred where more in-depth qualitative or mixed-methods designs have been used to study children’s experiences in armed conflict from what is called a “social ecological” perspective. The focus in this perspective is heavily on children’s capacity for resilience and the specific sociocultural context and mechanisms for the support of that resilience. While I do find this theoretical framework useful as I try to situate individual children in the various dimensions of the their life-worlds, I have also found social ecological models limited in their scope when it comes to trying make sense of how children locate themselves in historical and social processes.
Children’s accounts of their experiences of the armed conflict do tell individual stories, but what is striking is the degree to which children speak of themselves in terms of collective identities. While speaking of the manner in which evacuation processes during the chief military strike against the Taliban were bungled, most children spoke of the hardships that were inflicted on the Swatis as a group, framing the thoughtlessness of the higher-ups as a sign of disregard towards Swatis in general. Also remarkable is the manner in which children positioned themselves as historical subjects: the inability of the Pakistan government to intervene in a timely manner during the heyday of Taliban violence was seen as an indicator of the colonial relationship between the Pakistani state and Swat: Swatis were just not important enough and were really not Pakistani citizens. They seemed very cognizant of their histories as Swatis: Swat was annexed by Pakistan in 1969 and relegated to the “tribal belt” the residents of which are seen by other Pakistanis as uncivilized and prone to violence. The children were acutely aware of these constructions, and spoke bitterly against them.
My research then complicates the social-ecological paradigm by showing how broader sociopolitical processes shape children’s experiences and that it is not enough to focus on children’s everyday contexts to understand their conceptions of armed conflict and violence. We need to be cognizant of how larger historical forces impact children’s everyday lives. By listening carefully to Swati children’s words I have come to the conclusion that interventions to build children’s resilience should perhaps include measures whereby children can be involved in advocacy initiatives that fight for equal rights for Swatis as Pakistani citizens. At the least, my research indicates that efforts need to be made to dispel negative stereotypes of Swatis.
Dr. Lubna Chaudhry
Associate Professor of Human Development and Department Chair