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Contact: Prof Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Funder: Society of Legal Scholars SLS

The definition of maternal harms appears opaquely in contemporary academic and policy literatures. Attention to maternal harms in legal discourse has been both conceptually and empirically limited.

Moreover, mothering in extremity has received almost no substantive academic attention. In general, developing discourses of maternal harms focus on the trajectory of the mother-child relationship, the health and psychological needs of mothers, and occasionally on the state entitlements given to women by virtue of their status as mothers.  However, little scholarly work has been undertaken to bring these literatures into coherent view and address holistically what constitutes maternal harm as experienced by the mother.

Building on my earlier conceptual work this research project seeks to close that gap on a legal framing of maternal harms, paying particular attention to harms in situations of extremity, specifically conflict and post-conflict settings.  In parallel, the project seeks to bring the legal analysis of maternal harm into closer dialogue with the broader social science and psycho-social work on maternal harm.

The forerunner for this project was undertaken when I was a faculty member at the Hebrew University Law School (Israel) addressing the harms women experienced during the Holocaust.

At that time, having been invited to a conference addressing narratives and the Holocaust and resolving to address women’s experiences of sexual violence during the Holocaust, I was stunned by the lack of sustained research (across any discipline) of women’s experiences of violation as an integral element of the Holocaust.

The result was a two-year project working in the archives of the Yad Va Shem(Holocaust Museum) in Jerusalem reading narratives of women who had survived.  One of the strongest motifs that emerged in that research was the concept of maternal harm that I identified in the research subsequently published by the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism.

In particular, I focused on and theoretically developed a concept of sex-based harms in extremity with multiple elements.  These included the harm of separation, drawing out the illusionary distinction between primary and secondary harms for women, and focused on harms to children as a direct and primary form of sex-based targeting of women specifically and their communities generally.

My interest in maternal harms was in part prompted by the ways in which the female subject (particularly when she appears in human rights discourses and the law of armed conflict) tends to be conflated with sexual (generally penetrative) harm.  My instincts, theoretically and practically then and now, was that this essentialization hollowed out the experience of harm for women excluding their connectivity, their relationships with others, and in particular the specificity of their relationship to the children they bore and were targeted for harm or death during time of extremity.

This research intends to close a conceptual and empirical gap moving beyond the notion that direct physical acts of violence alone constitutes a harm.  The work will develop an independent concept of maternal harm, and trace its absence and the significance of this gap in legal literatures in general and law and conflict literature in particular.

The study will be underpinned by conflict based data that I has already collected from a group of conflict bereaved mothers in Belfast, Northern Ireland in close collaboration with the Relatives for Justice (a Belfast-based victims’ and advocacy organization. That work was supported by the receipt of a Society of Legal Scholars grant in 2016.


The research has a strong policy as well as scholarly praxis. The data collection methodology is being advanced in partnership with a Northern Ireland based victims and survivors group: Relatives for Justice (RFJ).

In ongoing consultation with RFJ, we determined that the predominant group of victims served by their work was female composed, a facet now unusual for victim survivor groups in conflict zones.  We specifically identified a sizeable group of mothers who had lost children during the conflict.  Anecdotally we distinguished a particularly vulnerable group with specific trauma and loss experiences, who were generally under-served by the generic victim support strategies and remedies available to them.

I saw an opportunity to conceptually tease out the nature and extent of the harms experienced by this group (both as primary and secondary victims), to better define their ‘connected harms’ of violent loss as a specifically feminist contribution to theories of harm, and to align the knowledge gleaned to assess the relevance of legal domestic and international legal remedies.

Over the past year I have been working to complete a data-base on maternal harm using this country and conflict-specific set of bereaved mothers to inform my theorizing and analysis. In parallel, an archival media review of child deaths and maternal responses (1969-1980 was undertaken) in the Linenhall Political Collection Library (Northern Ireland) to gain further perspectives on the representation of loss, violence and maternal status in a conflicted society.

This work was supported by the Society of Legal Scholars (SLS). These viewpoints will give traction and depth to the theoretical and empirical analysis.

The goal of the research is to produce significant theoretical and empirical work that illuminates an under-researched arena. Recalling Cynthia Enloe’s observation in The Curious Feminist,I have been reminded of how in law as in international relations “marginal stays marginal, the silent stay silent, and ladders are never turned upside down” [1].

In this vein, mothers are habitually overlooked as a category of analysis. In addressing “motherwork” I hope to deepen engagement in the gender and conflict realm by addressing mothers as victims, survivors, and resisters and thus expose the hues of power in a variety of conflict situations.

The work will develop an independent concept of maternal harm, and trace its absence and the significance of this gap in legal literatures in general and law and conflict literature in particular.

[1] The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (2004) 23-2