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Is “women and children” an outdated cliche?

An article by Simon Shuster from the 23 July issue of Time magazine analyzes an arms race in Syria, as both the government and the rebels rush to acquire weapons from abroad. According to Shuster, “The U.N. estimates the death toll [in Syria’s ongoing revolt] at more than 10,000, including thousands of women and children.”

That phrase, “women and children”, presumably intended to invoke an image of non-combatants killed by the warring sides, strikes me as somewhat outdated. For me, at least, that particular usage of the phrase seems redolent of Edwardian gentlemen ordering their stewards to man the life boats. “Women and children first! The captain must go down with the ship!”

Let me be clear: it is not all uses of the phrase “women and children” that strike me as awkward. In Norma González’s I Am My Language: Discourses of Women and Children in the Borderlands (2001) the phrase refers to actual women and actual children in Tuscon, Arizona. Although the populations she is interested in, Tuscon residents of Mexican and Anglo origin, include adult men, González puts analytical focus on women. There are plenty of sound theoretical, historical, or practical reasons to focus on women and children as a unit in an ethnography, a news story, or even an anecdote.

The usage that strikes me as odd is this somewhat metonymic use of “women and children” to mean non-combatant victims of war or other political violence. There are at least two things wrong with this equation: non-combatants are not necessarily women or children, and women and children are not necessarily non-combatant.

The nature of the rebel forces in Syria appears to be chaotic, with various distinct groups joined in their opposition to the current government. At any rate, the precise nature of the forces is not well known due to the relative absence of journalists or foreign observers. Given (often unconfirmed) reports of cities and towns struck by artillery or bombs, however, it seems likely that a great number of non-combatants have been killed, and logic suggests that such large-scale attacks kill people of all ages and all genders.

Just as the precise identities of non-combatant victims is unknown, the identities of the combatants killed is also unclear. While they may include only men, that does not strike me as a safe assumption. In the United States military, for example, approximately 14% of service personnel are women (Harrel et al. 2002). Would a rebel force necessarily exclude women?

Even children are not absent from recent military conflicts. Julia Dickson-Gõmez (2002) refers to estimates that as many as 300,000 children fought in wars and conflicts around the world during the late 1990s. Let me rush to suggest that I am not sanguine about the participation of children in armed conflict. Dickson-Gõmez argues that adolescent soldiers may suffer greater psychological trauma than adults. It is not acceptable that large numbers of children serve as combat fighters, even less so than the large numbers of adults so employed. It is, however, a fact of contemporary political violence.

Given these facts, I wonder whether use of the phrase “women and children” to mean non-combatants exposed to military harm risks a mis-recognition of the nature of political violence and its victims.


Dickson-Gõmez, Julia. 2002. Growing up in guerrilla camp: The long-term impact of being a child soldier in El Salvador’s civil war. Ethos 30(4), 327-356.

González, Norma. 2001. I Am My Language: Discourses of Women and Children in the Borderlands. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Harrell, Margaret C., Megan K. Beckett, Chiaying Sandy Chen & Jerry M. Sollinger. 2002. The Status of Gender Integration in the Military: Analysis of Selected Occupations. Santa Monica: RAND.

Shuster, Simon. 21 July 2012. Syria’s risky arms race. Daily Yomiuri. Reprinted from Time Magazine, 23 July 2012 issue.