FOREVER CHANGED: FOREVER HOPEFUL

The pain, resilience and resistance of girls in war: an intimate portrayal by three award-winning photographers

“I went through a crisis, but I did not stop. I did not surrender to life in Gaza. I resisted.” Hana’s* mother and four brothers were killed by an airstrike in Gaza when she was just eight. Now she fights back with words – expressing her feelings and speaking out against the war in poetry.

Like Hana, more than 200 million girls live in conflict zones across the world.

Every day, they experience the horrors of war – horrors compounded by the particular challenges girls face. They are more vulnerable to sexual violence and early marriage. They’re more likely to be denied their basic rights, like healthcare and education.

Photographers Lynsey Addario, Alessandra Sanguinetti and Esther Mbabazi worked with nine girls from Afghanistan, Gaza and the Democratic Republic of Congo to capture this rarely told, rarely heard story.

The resulting project is a celebration of girls' strength and creativity. It expresses their pain, but also their incredible resilience. It shows how they are resisting the violence that surrounds them in profound and moving ways.

It compels us to stand with them – as they work to rebuild their lives – and demand a safer world for girls everywhere.

GAZA

Gaza: an 11-year land, sea and air blockade has created what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison.

Here, children have too much to bear. They live with grinding daily fear. They struggle against the overwhelming weight of personal grief. They strive to cope with collective psychological trauma. And yet, even here they find ways to peacefully fight back.

Magnum photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti travelled to Gaza to spend time with girls affected by the conflict.

HANA* 14

Resistance
writer

An airstrike buried Hana, then just eight, and left her unconscious for more than a week. She woke up in hospital to learn that her mother and four young brothers had been killed.

But the enormity of her loss has not crushed Hana*. She has refused to descend into rage, hopelessness or despair.

“I went through a crisis, but I did not stop,” says Hana, now 14. “I did not surrender to life in Gaza. I resisted.”

Her resistance takes the form of poetry. She writes to process her grief, going to the beach for inspiration. “When you write poems, you express your feelings and emotions within you,” she explains. It is part of her recovery, complementing the support we give her for severe insomnia, flashbacks and PTSD.

“I want to tell the world that we Palestinians in Gaza are not happy that we are under siege. We have the right to live free and safe and in peace. It is our right to express our opinions…”

Hana regularly enters poetry competitions, is top of her class at school and finds hope in the power of education.

“Education is like a weapon in a person’s hand,” she says.

Hana studying in her bedroom

Hana studying in her bedroom

Hana holds a photograph of herself with the family members she lost in an airstrike.

Hana holds a photograph of herself with the family members she lost in an airstrike.

Hana on the beach where she likes to go to write

Hana on the beach where she likes to go to write

AMANI* 16

Emerging from a
nightmare

“When I go to school, I’m afraid. When I go outside to the street, I'm afraid. I'm always afraid that there will be a bombing, and something might happen to me."

Amani's fears are not irrational. When she was ten, her home in Gaza was destroyed by bombing.

“I do not talk much. I’m afraid that someone might remind me [of the trauma] and it will come up in conversation,” she says.

And Amani faces extra risks in this warzone because she is a girl. With the family forced to take refuge in a school, her father, Abdullah*, lay awake at night, scared that if his daughters went to the toilet they might be harassed or abused.

Amani now receives therapy from Save the Children’s partner in Gaza. Her case worker says: “When Amani came, she was barely speaking, isolated, introverted, [and had] nightmares.”

But after months of individual support, she is starting to make progress, and has begun to think about the future – a future she hopes will benefit the people around her.

Amani wants to become a lawyer one day, to go to court and defend people’s rights: “There’s no way you can be happy when you know your neighbour is not happy,” she says.

Amani with her older sister

Amani with her older sister

Amani with her parents at their home

Amani with her parents at their home

RANIA* 16

Refusing
a childhood wedding 

The grinding poverty left in the wake of war pushes many desperate parents to resort to a harmful tradition that can set their daughters up for a life of violence and control at home: child marriage.

Rania’s house was destroyed and her father lost his job during the conflict in Gaza. “Our lives were totally changed,” says Enaya*, 45, Rania’s mother. “She stopped asking for anything because we were unable to provide anything for her – no clothes, no education…”

In desperation her parents considered child marriage for Rania. “My family wanted to get rid of me and marry me off for money and tradition,” says Rania. She was just 14. “[Men] want young girls as they don’t have any expectations and needs.

“I have a friend married at 14… [There are] problems all day long, he hits her...’”

Thankfully, our case workers, Iman and Ahmad, were there to protect Rania from a similar fate. “I told them my story and that I didn’t want to get married,” she says. “They took me back to school.”

Now she has her sights set on a better future: “My hope is to fulfil my dream, which is to study law. I would defend the children of Palestine.”

A self-portrait taken by Rania with her mother

A self-portrait taken by Rania with her mother

An extract from Rania's text reads: 'All my toys, clothes and memories were lost when our home was destroyed. I began to scream, with tears running down my face. I tried to remember how my room looked like, and I would smell my clothes that smelled of gunpowder.'

An extract from Rania's text reads: 'All my toys, clothes and memories were lost when our home was destroyed. I began to scream, with tears running down my face. I tried to remember how my room looked like, and I would smell my clothes that smelled of gunpowder.'

AFGHANISTAN

In this beautiful country, most ordinary families long for progress and equality. But extremism and violence hold girls back, forcing them into restrictive roles and keeping them out of school.

As a result, girls have to overcome extra hurdles just to stay safe and have some control over the course of their lives. Yet overcome them they do.

War photographer Lynsey Addario – who has dedicated her life to covering conflict and its impact on women and girls – returned to Afghanistan 20 years after she first reported from it.

SHABANA* 14

Somewhere safe
to study

“It was awful. They would just start firing out of nowhere and we had to quit school.”

Shabana explains how violence in Afghanistan can bring education to a halt – but whether you get to return to school after the fighting dies down often depends on whether you’re a boy or a girl.

“Girls could no longer attend schools. None of us could do our studies. Boys could still go but girls could not.”

Not safe, even in the virtual prison of their own home, Shabana’s family loaded their truck and left, living in a tent before finding a house to move into in Kabul.

Here, Shabana was able to enrol in a Save the Children school helping children return to education. “Here, we started a good life,” she says.

“We were so happy the school was built for us and we can study well here. We have a beautiful school, we receive everything we need.”

Now Shabana hopes to become a doctor or teacher, to give back to her community.

Shabana walks to school for afternoon classes

Shabana walks to school for afternoon classes

An extract from Shabana's poem reads: 'I witnessed the worst face of war. I felt as if I had lost my life altogether. I did not know what was normal anymore. I wanted to go somewhere away from all of it. I can still see it in my head the day they shot my brother.'

An extract from Shabana's poem reads: 'I witnessed the worst face of war. I felt as if I had lost my life altogether. I did not know what was normal anymore. I wanted to go somewhere away from all of it. I can still see it in my head the day they shot my brother.'

HAMIDA* 11

Reliving the past,
looking to the future

A terrible scene used to play in Hamida’s mind over and over again. It was the murder of her father and grandfather by armed men.

“My grandfather opened the door. They shot him from behind. They separated my father from his mother and killed him too. I remember the bullets. I remember everything.”

She describes how she had to repeatedly relive the horror of that day: “The fight was playing in my eyes,” she says.

But now there is hope that Hamida may finally be able to leave the past behind her and begin to look forward to the future.

Her family moved to escape the violence and found a Save the Children school supported by UK aid. For the first time in her life, she is in mainstream education, studying a range of subjects, learning to read, write and count.

“We are very happy to have come here from our village. I am very happy here and I don’t have to worry about fighting. The difference here is that life is peaceful,” she says.

“I want there to be peace and safety in Afghanistan.”

Hamida studies at home before going to a school supported by Save the Children

Hamida studies at home before going to a school supported by Save the Children

Hamida reads to class at her school

Hamida reads to class at her school

GOLMINA* 12

A sky full of bullets

For girls in Afghanistan, getting an education is often an act of defiance and courage.

“One day, militants came to our school,” says Golmina. “The boys escaped, but the militants came and hit us [the girls] and our fathers. They hit my father so much for allowing us to go to school.”

Golmina looked on as her hopes of an education and a future began to fade.

“We were feeling sad looking at boys going to school but not the girls. Myself and the other girls were saying that we will not be educated, we will not become engineers, doctors [or] teachers."

Eventually, Golmina and her family fled their home in Kunduz, spending three nights dodging heavy gunfire and navigating militant-run checkpoints. “The sky was full of bullets,” she says.

After settling in a mountain village just outside Kabul, Golmina’s family immediately enrolled her at a Save the Children school. Life is still hard for the family – work is scarce and the living conditions harsh, but her father Osman* hopes that through education Golmina has a future.

“Afghanistan will be built with [the] education of boys and girls,” says Golmina. “We will respect our countrymates and everyone will have a happy life… Peace will come if we all educate ourselves.”

Golmina at home with her family before school

Golmina at home with her family before school

Behind the lens: Golmina photographs the photographer, Lynsey Addario.

Behind the lens: Golmina photographs the photographer, Lynsey Addario.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC
OF CONGO

A forgotten war rages in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), turning it into one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a girl.

They are frequently abducted by armed groups and are at extreme risk of sexual violence – with rape used a weapon of war.

The consequences for those who survive are devastating: their lives changed forever and their trust in other people profoundly shaken.

But their power and humanity endure. Esther Mbabazi documented the lives of some of the thousands of refugees who fled the DRC and are now living in a refugee camp in Uganda.  

REHIM* 15

"I wipe my tears"

“When dad was still alive, things were very good,” says Rehim. “When I came back from school, I could watch TV in the house. I would feel so happy to see and play with my father.”

But five years ago, that ordinary, happy family life was shattered forever.

Rebels attacked their home. Rehim’s father was killed and she was abducted, disappearing into the night.   

She was missing for a year, before managing to escape while her captors were sleeping. Discovered asleep in a garden, starved and weak, Rehim was reunited with her surviving family. 

When she remembers what she’s been through, Rehim cries. “I wipe my tears. Sometimes I go to church and sometimes to the Save the Children child-friendly space.”

She has ongoing urinary problems and abdominal pain, due to internal damage, which doctors believe has been caused by sexual violence – the fate of so many women and girls in this brutal conflict.

At the child-friendly space, Rehim is given psychological first aid, counselling and the chance to learn and play. “I like swinging or playing Ludo.”

These words are a heartbreaking reminder that Rehim is still just a child. She is, though, a child who is determined to build a life for herself:  “I want to teach children. But if teaching fails, I would like to be a doctor and treat people.

“I want to get a job and live a good life.”

Rehim and her mother Aluna outside their home

Rehim and her mother Aluna outside their home

Rehim plays Ludo – a board game – with friends at a child-friendly space supported by Save the Children

Rehim plays Ludo – a board game – with friends at a child-friendly space supported by Save the Children

HELEN* 15

"I only thought about running"

As Helen ran from scenes of horrific violence, she did not have time to dwell on them.  

“You see people running, others had been cut to pieces… we saw that with our eyes. I didn’t see any women being raped but I could hear them scream.

“I did not think about anything. I only thought about running…”

It was only after she and her sister Rita*, who were just 13 and 6 at the time, reached the relative safety of Uganda that the thoughts began to come.

“I had a problem of screaming a lot because of overthinking… a lot of thoughts. I would see my mother and father being cut, or without eyes.”  

Helen and Rita’s parents – who they had lost during the chaos – had both been killed.

They stayed at the refugee reception centre at the border for six weeks, safe from militants but still vulnerable, hungry, and in limbo. Then, one day, their old neighbours from DRC arrived. One of them, Prudence*, began to visit the young sisters every day. “[Prudence] would come with fish and talk to us,” says Helen. “She told us she would look after us. I felt happiness.”

After a while, Prudence decided to foster the girls. She’s supported by Save the Children case workers who visit the girls in their new home. “When they visit here, they talk and I’ve got pads, books and clothes.”

They also encouraged Helen to restart her education. “I have friends that I play with at school. I love studying, especially composition – writing and reading. During the war there was no studying, everyone was running, looking for somewhere to live.

Helen writes poetry to help her cope, and spends time with other children to take her mind off things. “I look for a place where there are many children and I play with them so I get tired and stop thinking,” she says.

Helen and her younger sister Rita chat to their foster mother Prudence

Helen and her younger sister Rita chat to their foster mother Prudence

Helen’s family stop for a portrait in the refugee settlement where they stay

Helen’s family stop for a portrait in the refugee settlement where they stay

“I want to be a doctor because doctors help people. I want to treat and help my friends," says Helen, pictured here showing photographer Esther Ruth Mbabazi the photograph she took of her.

LYDIA* 16

New life,
renewed hope

“My son likes it when I throw a bottle to him and he kicks it back. I also bounce a ball for him and put him down on the ground and play with him.

Back in the DRC, Lydia got home from school one day to find her mother missing. While searching for her, Lydia ran into a group of rebels, two of whom attacked and raped her. “I was 15 years old,” she says. “I feel so bad, remembering those things.”

After the attack she discovered she was pregnant and fled to Uganda. Her son, Bintu*, is now six-months old, and they have an incredibly tight bond.

Lydia plays with her baby son Bintu

Lydia plays with her baby son Bintu

“People from Save the Children brought clothes for me, blankets and baby clothes for him to wear.”

“I want my child to go to school to study and to be clever in class."

Lydia hangs her baby’s clothes at their home in a refugee settlement

Lydia hangs her baby’s clothes at their home in a refugee settlement

Lydia never wants to return to DRC. Instead she is focused on a safe, happy future for her and her son.

Lydia helps her aunt carry bananas

Lydia helps her aunt carry bananas

“I would love to do vocational activities like tailoring and hairdressing. I would love to have my own salon.

An extract from Lydia's poem reads: 'I smelt the good food my mama used to prepare and it was sweet. I saw many dead people in the Congo. I felt very many things. I hope that God will help me in everything.'

An extract from Lydia's poem reads: 'I smelt the good food my mama used to prepare and it was sweet. I saw many dead people in the Congo. I felt very many things. I hope that God will help me in everything.'

Girls caught up in conflict reject the violence they’ve known and the controls under which they’re forced to live.

They fight back, peacefully. Sometimes consciously, out loud, using their voice to document and campaign. Sometimes in quieter, gentler ways. They resist by living, by staying ambitious. By doing everything in their power to learn. By slowly recovering and hoping tomorrow will be better than today.

Moment by moment, they’re building a happier future through their own acts of love, determination, and care… supported by the kindness of family and friends, dedicated professionals, and strangers.

There are so many stories about girls rebuilding their lives and overcoming their trauma. To find out more, start here.

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Above: Behind the scenes of the project – and portraits of the photographers by the girls. Additional photography and film for this project by Hanna Adcock, Jonathan Hyams and Simon Edmunds.

Above: Behind the scenes of the project – and portraits of the photographers by the girls. Additional photography and film for this project by Hanna Adcock, Jonathan Hyams and Simon Edmunds.