There's a lot to like about this Marie Claire photo essay about the all-female YPJ brigade of Kurdish women fighting ISIS: it presents female fighters as powerful and brave. It credits their accomplishments as being vital to the war effort, not just means by which to humiliate devout Muslim men. In the photos accompanying the piece, the women stare directly at the camera with looks of pride and determination.
But then you scroll down, and realize that they aren't all adult women. Two of the photos are of young girls, one aged 12, and one 14. And although the article says that "recruits" under age 18 are not permitted to fight, both girls were photographed in military fatigues, and one is carrying a rifle.
These girls are child soldiers. Their participation in the YPJ may be brave, but it cannot be considered truly voluntary. If they have participated in hostilities, even as couriers or checkpoint monitors, that would constitute a violation of international law. (One of the young girls was photographed at a YPJ "checkpoint base," the other at a training base.) And even if they have not, publishing photographs of them in combat gear, with their names listed and their faces clearly showing, places them at risk.
As UNICEF explains in its ethical guidelines for reporting on children, child soldiers face grave risks of stigmatization and traumatization if their identities become known. "To ensure that individual children are shielded against possible reprisals, stigma or worse, UNICEF protects the identities of all former or current child soldiers judged to be at risk." The guidelines specifically prohibit "sensational" images that show child soldiers "acting or posing as aggressors - including all those holding weapons."
And, of course, we cannot expect ISIS to distinguish between young girls who took part in active hostilities and those who merely wore the uniform. Marie Claire's identification of these girls is particularly worrying in light of the chilling editor's note that ends the piece:
"In recent weeks, the YPJ has come under increased attack. Several of the women photographed by Trieb have been injured and some have been captured by ISIS."