McCarter Theatre Blog

Essential Knowledge: Women, War, and Sexual Violence in Liberia (and Other Conflict Zones)

Posted by Paula Alekson on January 29th, 2009

Eclipsed will change the way you think about war…

As McCarter’s Director of High School Programs, I am responsible for writing the educational content for our audience resource guides, and I also facilitate many of the post-show discussions for the student matinees.  A significant focus in my approach to preparing educational materials and curricula, is deciding what our student audiences and their teachers might need to prepare them for the production and/or to enrich their experience of the play in performance.

After reading Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed and seeing a directed reading with actors, it was immediately clear to me that what our student audiences—and perhaps our general IN-Festival audience—might need to prepare themselves for this remarkable and moving play:

  • knowledge about the plight of women in Liberian through what playwright Danai Gurira refers to as “twenty years of on again, off again wars”
  • knowledge about the brutal treatment, torture, and demoralization of women and girls in Liberia, as well as in other conflict zones, past and present, across the globe;
  • knowledge about what women and children (both girls and boys) are forced and coerced into doing to simply survive a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and beyond, in a country or region torn asunder by war.

To educate me about the backdrop for Eclipsed, my colleague, McCarter Literary Intern, and frequent McCarter blogger, Patrick McKelvey (in his capacity as assistant to Literary Manager and Eclipsed Dramaturg, Carrie Hughes), provided me with a stack of books on women, war, and sexual and gendered violence, including editor Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s War’s Dirty Secret:  Rape Prostitution, and Other Crimes Against Women and editors Meredith Turshen’s and Clotilde Twagiramariya’s What Women Do in Wartime:  Gender and Conflict in Africa.  Although neither of these books focus specifically on the plight of Liberian women, they present eye-opening research and scholarship on the nature and scope of the victimization of woman in armed conflict situations from World War II to the present day; on the crimes perpetrated upon women from Korea, China, Yugoslovia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Chad, Mozambique, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, etc.; and on atrocities committed by Japanese, Rwandans, Kenyans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Yugoslavians, Serbians, Bosnians, Croats, as well as citizens of the United States, etc.

Barstow begins the introduction of her book with the sentence, “The purpose of this book is to change the way you think about war” (1). This simple quotation reminds me very much of the effect of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on me; although Gurira may not have had this as her conscious intention when writing, this play will change the way you think about war.

The epigraph to War’s Dirty Secret is a quotation by Noeleen Heyzer (formerly the head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women) likewise epitomizes the story of Eclipsed:  “In war there is no victory for women, no matter which side wins.  Women are the worst victims of war and hence the highest stakeholders for peace” (1).

The dreadful yet essential knowledge any student or life-long learner needs to know to prepare themselves to see and appreciate Dania Gurira’s Eclipsed, or any story of women caught in war today is:

  • civilians have become the chief victims of modern warfare; that is, the ratio of military/paramilitary personnel to civilians killed since 1945 is approximately 1:8 [compare that with statistics for World War I (8:1) and World War II (1:1)] (3)
  • according to Barstow, in modern warfare, women have “strategic importance” and “figure regularly in military strategy.”  She continues:

The forms of ‘using’ women are various, but the ultimate effect is the same:  the combination of familiar forms of sexual objectification of women with the extraordinary power of the military in wartime has created enormous possibilities for new violence against women. (8)

  • sexual slavery is one military/paramilitary strategy, which typically involves the entrapment or kidnapping of women and girls, and rape in the forms of either forced prostitution or sexual servitude as a “wife” to a soldier
  • the rape and the torture of women is used  in war not only to demoralize and humiliate “the enemy,” but also to destroy the fabric of families and communities

War tends intensify the brutality, repetitiveness, public spectacle, and likelihood of rape.  War diminishes sensitivity to human suffering and intensifies men’s sense of entitlement, superiority, avidity, and social license to rape. (quoted in Barstow, 8)

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is about war and women.  It is about displacement, disempowerment, trauma, survival, and resilience.

It is also, amazingly, in the midst of all of that funny and ultimately more touching than distressing.

Be prepared…

… this play will change the way you think about war.

Posted by Paula Alekson, Director of High School Programs at McCarter Theatre.

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