Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Content warning: as the title makes clear, this blog post contains discussions of scenes of sexual abuse.
Sexual violence is a difficult topic to read about or discuss. Yet, unfortunately, according to Save the Children, Amnesty International, and the United Nations, it is increasingly used as a strategy of terror and dehumanization during conflicts around the world. As of 2018, 415 million children live in conflict zones, and "grave violations" against children, which include sexual violence, are at their highest ever recorded. Save the Children reports that "nine in ten child victims of sexual violence are girls." To create a more gender balanced and rights-respecting culture, learning about sexual violence is an essential part of human rights education. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) specifies children's literature (which here also encompasses YA) as a method of disseminating information to young people about their rights and responsibilities as global citizens.
During middle school, many students around the world are introduced to topics related to historical and global conflict. In my work with educators over the past ten years, they report using The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, and Refugee by Alan Gratz to help young readers learn about war and genocide. While these books are great introductions, they do not even hint as sexual violence. While authors of YA have become more attuned to portraying genocidal violence in other forms -- shooting, mass graves, hanging, beating, forced labor, death marches -- most have yet to attempt to grapple with how to integrate sexual violence in narratives for young readers. This is, in part, due to the taboos and tensions around when it is "appropriate" to educate children about sex and the best ways to do so. But it also is about power. In her blog for this conference, Lydia Kokkola explains that "literature can expose a culture’s conscience and consciousness." Drawing on the work of Ernestine Schlant, Kokkola state, "Silence is often assumed to be a result of repression, of silencing another person. More disturbingly, it arises from a failure to notice that something exists." My concern is that by excluding even hints of sexual violence from YA literature of atrocity, authors fail to raise consciousness about a very real problem that exist.
Two YA books that do incorporate sexual violence during war and genocide are Forgotten Fire by Adam Bagdasarian and Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen. Forgotten Fire won multiple awards, including the 2001 Best Book for Young Adults. It is a beautifully-written account based on the life of the author's uncle during the Armenian genocide. Vahan, the twelve-year-old protagonist, witnesses his sister commit suicide because she is so terrified of being raped. He is held at gunpoint and "rubbed" by a Turkish man, and two companions of his are raped. The events are not described in detail, but the book helps readers understand how sexual violence is weaponized.
Deogratias won the 2000 Goscinny Prize for outstanding graphic novel script and was named one of the ALA's Best Books for Young Adults and a Great Graphic Novel for teens by YALSA. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Deogratias, suffers a mental and physical breakdown following the genocide, and readers come to learn that he was forced to participate in sexual violence and murder. While the violence of the genocide happens off the page, the reality of sexual violence is prevalent throughout. Stassen, rightly in my opinion, doesn't shy away from including it despite his intended audience's age.
The use of sexual violence during conflict continues to increase, and young people, as global citizens leading many advances for change throughout the world, need to be aware. Given that children around the world endure conflict in their lives on a daily basis, it is an injustice to deny knowledge of global conflict and suffering to children whose lives are more stable, such as those in countries that are not battlefields, at least not currently. Suzanne Honeyman argues in her book Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction that "Denying any young person access to certain types of knowledge ... is an infringement, not protection—it is robbing another person of their rightful agency " (145). Children are citizens and have agency and many will become leaders of this world; therefore, they should be educated about the realities and consequences of unchecked power and social divisions. Educators and guardians can use YA literature to enhance young people's understanding of conflict, even the most troubling kinds of dehumanization and terror like sexual violence.
Dr. Sarah Minslow is Assistant Professor of Children's and YA Literature at California State University Los Angeles. After completing her PhD at the University of Newcastle (Australia), she taught Children's Literature and Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights (HGHR) courses at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte for eight years, where she also served as a steering committee member for the Center for HGHR Studies. In addition to British and Children's Literature, Dr. Minslow teaches War and Genocide in Children's Literature, Refugees in Literature and Film, Children's Literature and Human Rights, and Child Soldiers and Conflict. She is a member of the Teaching Brief Editorial Board of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and the Phoenix Picture Book Award committee of the Children's Literature Association. Routledge will publish her co-edited volume, Denial: The Final Stage of Genocide? in Spring 2022.