Lessons from Liberia

To go into a post-conflict state that is wrestling with all of this in real time with real-world consequences, was a compelling opportunity. . . . I didn’t have to change who I was to be relevant.

—Pamela Scully, Associate Professor of African Studies and women’s Studies

Vol. 11 No. 4
February/March 2009

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Lessons from Liberia
Reconsidering international development, scholarship, and engagement

“The theoretical frameworks and principles of practice that have guided development activities for the past fifty years have not yielded the intended outcomes.”

To go into a post-conflict state that is wrestling with all of this in real time with real-world consequences, was a compelling opportunity. . . . I didn’t have to change who I was to be relevant.”

Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition
The Concept of Vulnerability

Dhondup’s Wisdom
Teaching and learning from Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns

Emory University Strategic Plan Update
What is happening and why we should care


Academic Exchange: How did your interest in Liberia begin?

Pamela Scully: IDN and African studies co-sponsored a lecture series called Making a Difference to try to get people from The Carter Center and Emory in conversation about topics that could generate research and practice—to have people in the field at The Carter Center talking to those of us doing research and thinking about these issues and to encourage academics to think more broadly about the significance of research. Tom Crick from The Carter Center gave a talk on the rule of law in Liberia. He spoke about the issue of gender-based violence and how difficult it was even given the changes in Liberian law around rape and inheritance to change practice in the rural areas. I started talking about what little I know about customary law in Africa and colonial heritage. When the British, for example, encountered customary law they tended to speak to the male elders of the villages and say, how does the law work in your society? The men gave answers of what they kind of wished was the case, and the British took it as fact. So one of the arguments has been that customary law was actually a colonial invention and that it was much more hostile to women than precolonial practices, which were much more messy and flexible.

I don’t know whether this was the case in Liberia, but as a historian to go into a post-conflict state that is wrestling with all of this in real time with real-world consequences was a compelling opportunity. As an historian of colonial laws and sexual violence, I didn’t have to change who I was to be relevant. I’ve come to think that my next book is really a project about talking to the importance of history in the present of post-conflict, how historical understanding particularly around gender and violence might help us think in more creative ways about how to build a post-conflict society in which men and women can flourish.

When I went to Liberia on the gender-based violence working group trip in March 2008, I was teaching a course in feminist theory and human rights. It was very legally oriented around the debates within feminism on how you put rape and domestic violence into international human rights law. It’s very difficult because they are seen as domestic, private issues, and international law tends to deal with the state. Then after the trip, I couldn’t stop talking about Liberia. Toward the end of the class, my graduate students came and said, Can we change what we’re writing on? We all want to write on Liberia. Can’t we do something that would actually engage with Liberia? So one wrote on the new rape law in Liberia from a feminist theory perspective. Somebody else wrote on how to make feminist interconnections with computing in Liberia. Somebody else wrote on religious-based programs and how they could be used to address domestic violence.

AE: Can you explain some of your thinking about gender-based violence?

PS: There’s a wide variety of understanding about what it means. But it seems in general to mean violence against women, including rape, domestic violence, inheritance laws, female genital mutilation, et cetera. One of the things that troubled me is I think it’s really re-animating an older question of who is vulnerable and needs protection. It’s not that women don’t need protection. But what happens is silence around sexual violence visited on men. We know that a lot of these conflicts—particularly in northern Uganda, the Congo, I think Sierra Leone but I’m not sure because nobody talks about it—young men are also being raped. Men are also made to rape their mothers and their children in front of soldiers. That is surely a form of sexual violence against the men.

Our analytic categories cannot cope with this blurring of perpetrator and victim. We don’t know what to do with it, so we keep them separate: we make men the perpetrators and women the victims. I don’t want in any way to suggest that women aren’t victims of appalling violence, because they are. But I worry about these theoretical frames. What I’m finding is that it isn’t just theoretical conversations; they have real implications. I read in a report somewhere that “gender” doesn’t translate into many languages. Often it’s translated as “women.” But really talking with someone about sexual violence against women is a different analytic concept from gendered violence. I would say that men are raped in wartime because either they refuse to fight and they’re being made into women who don’t fight, or they’re being raped or made to rape to humiliate them. It’s a really important analytic level to have, and it’s not one that is easily developed.