The Female Experience of War

Three international photographers travelled through war zones for Save the Children’s series The Female Experience of War, which documents the additional struggles facing girls and young women amid conflict

UK charity Save the Children enlisted photographers Lynsey Addario, Esther Mbabazi and Alessandra Sanguinetti for its striking photo series, The Female Experience of War, which ran in the Sunday Times Magazine for International Women’s Day earlier this year.

The project involves portraits of nine girls and young women who each have first-hand experience of growing up amid conflict, including in Gaza, Afghanistan and Uganda. They represent a fraction of a bigger picture: more than 200 million girls live in conflict zones worldwide and are disproportionately impacted in terms of healthcare, education, early marriage and sexual violence, according to the charity. These issues, among others, are addressed in the project, with many of the participants – all under 16 – having had direct experience of violence, manipulation and assault.

Top: Photograph taken in Afghanistan by Lynsey Addario for Save the Children; Above: Photograph taken in Gaza by Alessandra Sanguinetti/Magnum Photos

The photographers were chosen for their distinct styles, as well as their personal connections to the countries examined in the project. “Lynsey [was picked] for her vivid reportage and experience of reporting on conflict and the oppression of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban,” says Tom Maguire at Save the Children, who commissioned the project. “2020 marked 20 years since she first travelled there. Alessandra for her quiet lyrical portraiture and understanding of what daily life looks like for children growing up in Gaza – from a long-term personal project in the region. And Esther for her bold but sensitive approach to documenting life for girls growing up in Uganda today.” 

The portraits vary in tone, ranging from sombre and scared to expressions of defiance. “We wanted the photographers to adopt a documentary approach, but it was important the girls weren’t defined by their past struggles or the traumas they may have endured,” Maguire says. 

Photograph taken in Uganda by Esther Mbabazi

“Each portrait in the set strikes a sensitive balance, evoking the harsh reality of what these girls have been through, but also their strength, courage and resilience, and sense of hope for a better future.

“Organising shoots in active conflict zones is complex, and there are lots of moving parts,” he continues, adding that they relied upon the expertise of the local teams. “In Afghanistan, for example, the fragile security situation in Kandahar and Kabul meant the team weren’t able to take the same route, or meet with the girls in the same location twice. In Uganda, we worked closely with caseworkers and safeguarding experts living in the community to identify girls who they knew would be happy to share their stories without being retraumatised during the process. For safeguarding reasons, two of three girls Esther met with were photographed anonymously. Lots of things had to be considered and come together on all three of the shoots – it was a real team effort.”

Each girl responded to writing prompts – for example, ‘I fear’ or ‘I miss’ – that could be used to explain war to a child who hadn’t experienced it before. Golmina, who grew up in Kunduz Province in Afghanistan – where her father had been injured by an explosive device, neighbours had been killed, and an armed group had come to her school and beat the girls – recalls the sounds of bombs and bullets, the bitter tastes and smells. 

Each girl’s answers were turned into ‘sense poems’ as a way of bringing their voices into the project. The handwritten poems were then photographed and paired alongside some of the portraits to create diptychs. “It’s vital that we celebrate children’s agency and create space for them to speak for themselves,” Maguire says.