In yesterday’s Independent online The Evening Standard’s restaurant critic and ex-Guardian soap opera reviewer, Grace Dent, gave us the gift of her deep understanding of wider society, this time opining that the teenagers in the news who have left the country, apparently to join ISIS in Syria, should not be allowed to return to their British homes.
Dent’s approach to the girls is cynical and full of condemnation. Her description of the girls as appearing to be “cool headed, elegantly pulled together, determined young women” deliberately ignores their ages (the youngest is fifteen) which confirm their child-status. This is the same logic and defence used by those who groom and abuse kids. “They didn’t look underage”; “they were really mature for their age”. It requires you to dismiss the evident fact that, despite their mature appearance, these were, in fact, teenage girls who are naive and susceptible. They have obviously not made a wise choice at all, but — should you stop to think for a few seconds rather than rush into yet another thinkpiece? — They are victims, not criminals.
Would we say the victims of the Rotherham scandal were not victims at all because they appeared “mature” or consumed alcohol? Of course not. So why is this acceptable in this instance?
This lack of understanding about the foolishness of children is especially reprehensible given that ISIS are not alone in using child soldiers. Indeed, the Lord’s Resistance Army regularly conscripted children, either by force or by propaganda, to carry out horrific attacks in Uganda and DRC. In Sri Lanka, children joined the LTTE after being harassed by the armed forces and seeing their friends being conscripted. It is not clear if the Ugandan or Sri Lankan governments have contacted Dent or the Independent to ask for her assistance in resolving this problem. Surely it can only be a matter of time.
I was fortunate a while back to visit a project that works to rehabilitate former child soldiers and spend some time with these kids, who were now young adults. I met young women and men who had joined the army purely because their friends had. Some had joined up as a dare. These kids were groomed, manipulated and abused during their time in the army, forced to do unspeakable things on pain of death. I spoke to a 17-year-old boy who had been forced to rape women old enough to be his grandmother. He had been made to shoot his own best friend whilst blindfolded aged 12. Imagine Dent reading this description and tutting at the children.
Another young girl had joined with a friend because she didn’t want to be left behind. She was forced to kill and eventually made a sexual slave for the older male soldiers.
What struck me when speaking to them, after the initial horror at the things they had been made to do, was how much they were haunted by the naive choices they had made as children. How, despite being in their late teens and early adulthood, they were still trying to rebuild their childhoods that had been so corrupted. Dent would, one assumes reading her article that she would have them forever locked into the choices they made as teenagers.
What is the end result of condemning children as if they are adults? It opens the door to criminalising children. It washes our hands of any responsibility as to how and why these three girls were able to board a plane alone despite being underage, how they were able to be groomed without detection much like the thousands of child victims of abuse are every year, and how the ever-rising Islamophobia that guides and pushes our domestic and foreign policy played a part in this.
This is not the first time Dent has held women of colour to a different standard than others. She once referred to Rihanna, a victim of domestic violence at the hands of ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, as a “toxic nitwit” for going back to her abuser amidst rumours they had reunited.
Seven months after that, she tweeted her approval of a photo of Sean Penn with his ex-wife Madonna. That’s domestic abuser Sean Penn with his ex-wife Madonna, whom he assaulted with a baseball bat, for which he pled guilty to a misdemeanour — the same plea Chris Brown made after his assault on Rihanna.
You might wonder what the difference is between the situations of Brown/Rihanna and Penn/Madonna in Dent’s eyes. Or why the grooming of young children of colour into war is not given the same care and compassion as the grooming of young children for sexual abuse.
This is nothing new. For decades brown and black bodies are routinely denied their childhood to justify violence being perpetrated on them. The events in the US of the past year, where 12-year-old black boys are shot dead because they appear older, or the justification of targeted bombing of Palestinian children because “war is war” shows us that the intersection of race serves time and again to dehumanise and delegitimise the lives and childhoods of brown and black bodies.
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Judith Wanga is an editor, activist and writer. She was the subject of the BBC3 documentary titled The World’s Most Dangerous Place for Women, examining the use of rape as a weapon of war and the attitudes towards women in The Democratic Republic of Congo. Jude also campaigns and speaks at events highlighting the plight of women in the DRC and around the world. @judeinlondon