Academic journal article African Studies Review

International Human Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Local Discourses of Abuse in Postconflict Liberia: A Problem of "Culture"?

Academic journal article African Studies Review

International Human Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Local Discourses of Abuse in Postconflict Liberia: A Problem of "Culture"?

Article excerpt

The Case of Gender-Based Violence: Assessing the Impact of International Human Rights Rhetoric on African Lives


In this article we draw on three years of ethnographic observation of postconflict humanitarian intervention in Liberia to consider the process whereby global efforts in the areas of gender-based violence (GBV) and human rights are interacting with local debates over kinship, entitlement, personal rights, and social responsibility. This article draws upon Liberian narratives, complaints, and efforts to regulate, in a national context, social norms and behavior in regard to gender-based violence issues in postconflict life while also engaging with an ongoing international human rights discourse on the subject of GBV. Our ethnography takes a multiscalar approach to give a sense of the process, multiple discourses, and dialectics of power involved in this issue, and to demonstrate how the definition of "the GBV problem" in Liberia, the target of complex GBV interventions, is different from the conception held by agencies, governmental ministries, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are responsible for implementing global mandates.

Résumé: Dans cet article, nous nous appuyons sur trois ans d'observation ethnographique des interventions humanitaires après la guerre civile au Liberia pour examiner la relation entre les efforts globaux dans les domaines de la violence contre les femmes et des droits de l'homme, et les débats locaux sur les questions de parenté, de droit commun et individuel, et de responsabilité sociale. Cet article se base sur des récits locaux, des plaintes déposées, et sur les efforts de régulation au niveau national des normes sociales et des comportements se rapportant aux problèmes de violence perpétrée contre les femmes dans la vie quotidienne d'après-guerre, tout en se rapportant à la discussion internationale en cours sur les droits de l'homme dans le contexte de la violence contre les femmes. Notre point de vue ethnographique se situe à plusieurs niveaux pour offrir une vue générale du processus, des discours multiples, et de la dialectique du pouvoir impliqués dans cette question, et pour démontrer que la définition appliquée au "problème de la violence contre les femmes" au Liberia, sujet à des interventions complexes sur ce problème, est différente des notions perçues par les agences d'intervention, les ministères du gouvernement, et les ONG chargés de mettre en place des mandats globaux pour faire face au problème.


The following account is presented as a set of "intersecting texts." In a series of ethnographic "chapters" we document an actual encounter, observed by one author, which occurred in rural Liberia. Our analysis, interspersed with the ethnographic description of a single event, is placed in the context of several years of fieldwork with humanitarian organizations in postwar Liberia conducted by the first author, as well as years of research on that country, pre- and postwar, conducted by the second. In keeping with the ethical practices of our discipline (anthropology), we carefully disguise the identities of our informants and the exact location of the places where these events occurred. Our decision to organize our presentation in this manner was guided by the intention to represent, in textual form, the emergent, conflicted state of the discourse surrounding gender-based violence in this particular postconflict situation. This admittedly "experimental" mode of writing, we believe, best represents the confusions and misunderstandings currently experienced by practitioners in the field of gender-vased violence, both Liberian and expatriate, by the communities they are attempting to change, and by ourselves, as anthropologists seeking to understand these processes.

GBV Intervention, Chapter 1:

One steamy afternoon in 2008, a white four-wheel-drive vehicle with tinted windows drove slowly into a rural community in the interior of Liberia. …

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