Skip to main content

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


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.


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.

Hide All
Aboagye F. B., and Bah A. M. S.. 2004. Liberia at a Crossroads: A Preliminary Look at the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Protection of Civilians. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies No. 95 (November).
Abramowitz Sharon. 2009. “Psychosocial Liberia: Managing Suffering in Post-Conflict Life.” Ph.D. diss, Harvard University.
Abramowitz Sharon. 2010. “Trauma and Humanitarian Translation in Liberia: The Tale of Open Mole.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 34: 353–79.
Abu-Lughod Lila. 2006. “Writing Against Culture.” In Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, edited by Lewin Ellen, 153–69. Londo: Blackwell.
Agamben G. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
African Women and Peace Support Group. 2004. Liberian Women Peacemakers: Fighting for the Right to Be Seen, Heard, and Counted. Trenton, N J.: Africa World Press.
Amnesty International. 2008. “Rehabilitation and Reintegration” in Liberia: A Flawed Post-War Process Discriminates against Women and Girls. London: Amnesty International.
Badmus I. 2009. “Explaining Women's Roles in the West African Tragic Triplet: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire in Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences 1(3): 808–39.
Basu Amrita. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Basu Amrita, ed. 2010. Women's Movements in the Global Era: The Power of Local Feminisms. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Black R. 2009. “Mainstreaming Resolution 1325? Evaluating the Impact of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Country-Specific UN Resolutions.” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 11 (4): 130.
Bledsoe Caroline. 1980. Women and Marriage in Kpelle Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Burrowes Carl Patrick. 2004. Power and Press Freedom inLiberia, 1930–1970. Trenton, N J.: Africa World Press.
Coulter Chris. 2009. Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers: Women's Lives through War and Peace in Sierra Leone. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
D'Azevedo Warren. 1962. “Some Historical Problems in the Delineation of the Central West Atlantic Region.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 96: 512–38.
Disney Abigail, and Reticker Gini. 2008. Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Fork Films.
Donnelly Jack. 2002. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press
Ellis Stephen. 1999. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimensions of an African Civil War. New York: New York University Press.
Ferme Mariane C. 2001. The Underneath of Things: Violence, History and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fuest Veronika. 2008. “‘This Is the Time to Get in Front’: Changing Roles and Opportunities for Women in Liberia.” African Affairs 107/427: 201–24.
Fuest Veronika. 2009. “Liberia's Women Acting for Peace: Collective Action in a War-Affected Country.” In Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, edited by Ellis Stephen, van Kessel Ineke, and Kessel Wilhelmina Maria Johanna, 114–37. Brill: African Dynamics Series.
Gaye A., Klugman J., and Kovacevic M.. 2010. “Measuring Key Disparities in Human Development: The Gender Inequality Index. Human Development Research Paper2010/46. New York: United Nations Development Programme.
George Rose. 2004. A Life Removed: Hunting for Refuge in theModem World. New York: Penguin.
Gibbs James. 1962. “Poro Values and Courtroom Procedures in a Kpelle Chiefdom.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 18: 341–50.
Gibbs James. 1963. “The Kpelle Moot: A Therapeutic Model of the Informal Settlement of Disputes.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 33: 111
Hodson Igor. 2007. UNMIL: International Engagement in Addressing Violence against Women. London: ActionAid.
Hodgson Dorothy. 2011. Gender and Culture at the Limits of Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Honwana Alcinda. 2006. Child Soldiers in Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ignatieff Michael. 2003. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). 2005. Guidelines on Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies (Field Test Version). Geneva: Inter-Agency Standing Committee.
Kuper Adam. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge.
Lekskes Jeannette, van Hooren Susan, and de Beus Jos. 2007. “Appraisal of Psycho-social Interventions in Liberia.” Intervention 5 (1): 1826.
Levitt Peggy, and Merry Sally. 2009. “Vernacularization on the Ground: Local Uses of Global Women's Rights in Peru, China, India, and the United States.” Global Networks 9 (4): 441–61.
Massaquoi W.Women and Post-Conflict Development: A Case Study on Liberia.” M.S. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Merry Sally Engle. 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Merry Sally Engle. 2008. Gender Violence: A Cultural Perspective. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Moran Mary H. 1989. “Collective Action and the Representation of African Women: A Liberian Case Study.” Feminist Studies 15: 443–60.
Moran Mary H. 1990. Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Moran Mary H. 2006. Liberia: The Violence of Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Moran Mary H. 2010. “Gender, Militarism, and Peace-Building: Projects of the Postconflict Moment.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 261–74.
Moran Mary H., and Pitcher M. Anne. 2004. “The Basket Case and the Poster Child: Explaining the End of Civil Conflicts in Liberia and Mozambique.” Third World Quarterly 25: 501–20.
Morris Jennie B. 2005. “The Establishment of the Ministry of Gender and Development: A Case Study of the Changing Role of Women in Liberia” M.A. thesis, University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Ndinga-Muvumba A. 2010. “Who Said It Was Simple? Implementing 1325.” ACCORD: The African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes. Issue 2 (October).
Okerere G. 2006. “Violence against Women in Africa.” African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies 2 (1): 135.
Okonjo Kamene. 1976. “The Dual Sex Political System in Operation: Igbo Women and Community Politics in Midwestern Nigeria.” In Women in Africa, edited by Hafkin Nancy and Bay Edna G., 4558. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Oyewumi Oyeronke. 1996. The Invention of Women: Making African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pandolfi M., and Fassin D., 2010. Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. New York: Zone Books.
Pajibo Ezekiel. 2008. “Traditional Justice Mechanisms: The Liberian Case.” Stockholm: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Povinelli Elizabeth A. 2002. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Powers W. D. 2006. BlueClay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge. New York: Blooms-bury USA.
Risse Thomas, Ropp Stephen C., and Sikkink Kathryn. 1999. The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rubinstein R. A. 2005. “Intervention and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Peace Operations.” Security Dialogue 36 (4): 527–44.
Sawyer Amos. 2005. Beyond Plunder: Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner.
Schia N., and de Carvalho B.. 2009. “Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Liberia.” Conflict Trends 3: 2633.
Scully Pamela. 2011. “Gender, History, and Human Rights.” In Gender and Culture at the Limit of Rights, edited by Hodgson Dorothy, 1731. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shaw Rosalind. 2002. Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shaw Rosalind, Waldorf Lars, and Hazan Pierre, eds. 2010. Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities After Mass Violence. Stanford Studies in Human Rights. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Sirleaf Ellen Johnson. 2009. This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President. New York: Harper Collins.
Specht I. 2006. Red Shoes: Experiences of Girl-Combatants in Liberia. Geneva: International Labour Office, Programme on Crisis Response and Reconstruction.
Sriram C., Martin-Ortega O., and Herman J., eds. 2010. Peacebuilding and Rule of Law in Africa: Just Peace? New York: Routledge.
Swiss S. 1998. “Violence against Women during the Liberian Civil Conflict.” JAMA: The Journal ofthe American Medical Association 279 (8): 625–29.
Terry Fiona (2002). Condemned to Repeat: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Utas Mats. 2003. “Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War.” Ph.D. diss., Uppsala University, Sweden.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 0002-0206
  • EISSN: 1555-2462
  • URL: /core/journals/african-studies-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 114 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 492 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.