Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 947–979 | Cite as

Narratives of Agency and Capability from Two Adolescent Girls in Post-conflict Liberia

  • Elizabeth J. LeveyEmail author
  • Lance D. Laird
  • Anne E. Becker
  • Benjamin L. Harris
  • G. Gondah Lekpeh
  • Claire E. Oppenheim
  • David C. Henderson
  • Christina P. C. Borba
Original Paper


Between 1989 and 2003, Liberia experienced a brutal civil war characterized by ethnic killings, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. Five years after the war ended, half the population of Liberia was under 18 years old. Understanding the needs of these youth is thus essential to the recovery of the nation. This study focuses on the narratives of two female adolescents, selected from 75 in-depth individual interviews with post-conflict Liberian youth conducted in 2012. A narrative analysis approach was employed to examine each interview for multiple layers of meaning. The aim of the study was to elucidate factors that may enable post-conflict youth to reclaim a sense of agency and return to normal developmental tasks. The study explores the ways in which these youth navigate complicated power dynamics in the post-conflict setting and how gender impacts their experiences of their own agency and capability. The dynamics between the participants and the interviewer are explored to further illustrate how power dynamics manifest. These narratives support the involvement of youth in projects that help others as an avenue for promoting agency and resilience for themselves.


Agency Capability Liberia Post-conflict Youth 



Funding was provided by National Institutes of Health (Grant No. T32MH093310).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Abramowitz, S., and M.H. Moran 2012 International Human Rights, Gender-Based Violence, and Local Discourses of Abuse in Post-Conflict Liberia: A Problem of “Culture?” African Studies Review 55(2): 119–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alpers, E.A. 1984 Ordinary Household Chores: Ritual and Power in a 19th Century Swahili Women’s Spirit Possession Cult. International Journal of African Historical Studies 17(4): 77–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aronsson, K., and S. Andersson 1996 Social Scaling in Children’s Drawings of Classroom Life: A Cultural Comparative Analysis of Social Scaling in Africa and Sweden. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 14(3): 301–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Betancourt T.S., and K.T. Khan 2008 The Mental Health of Children Affected by Armed Conflict: Protective Processes and Pathways to Resilience. International Review of Psychiatry 20(3): 317–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Betancourt, T.S., S. Meyers-Ohki, S.N. Stulac, A. Elizabeth Barrera, C. Mushashi, and W.R. Beardslee 2011 Nothing Can Defeat Combined Hands (Abashize hamwe ntakibananira): Protective Processes and Resilience in Rwandan Children and Families Affected by HIV/AIDS. Social Science & Medicine 73(5): 693-701CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boothby, N., A. Strang, and M. Wessels 2006 A world turned upside down: SOcial ecological approaches to children in war zones. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.Google Scholar
  7. Borba, C., O. Vesga Lopez, B. Harris, D. Gray, J. Carney, S. Dominguez, E.K. Wang, and R. Boxill, D. Henderson 2016 A Mental Health Needs Assessment of Children and Adolescents in Post-conflict Liberia: Results from a Quantitative Key Informant Survey. International Journal of Culture and Mental Health 9(1): 56–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boyden J (2000) Social Healting in War-Affected and Displaced Children. Oxford: University of Oxford Refugees Studies Centre.Google Scholar
  9. CEDAW 2014 Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties Under Article 18 of the Convention: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: 7th and 8th Periodic Reports of States Parties Due in 2013: Liberia, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Cortes, L., & Buchanan, M. J. (2007). The Experience of Columbian Child Soldiers from a Resilience Perspective. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 29(1), 43-55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ebina, R., & Yamazaki, Y. (2008). Sense of coherence and coping in adolescents directly affected by the 1991–5 war in Croatia. Promot Educ, 15(4), 5-10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Farmer, P. E., Nizeye, B., Stulac, S., & Keshavjee, S. (2006). Structural violence and clinical medicine. PLoS Med, 3(10), e449. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fleshman, M. (2010). Even with Peace, Liberia’s Women Struggle. Africa Renewal 24(1): 8–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Frank, K. (2006). Agency. Anthropological Theory, 6(3), 281-302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Greene, S. E. (2013). Crossing Boundaries/Changing Identities: Female Slaves, Male Strangers, and their Descendants in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Anlo. In M. Grosz-Ngate & O. Kokole (Eds.), Gendered Encounters: Challenging Cultural boundaries and Social Hierarchies (pp. 23-41). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Hennink, M. H., I; Bailey, A. (2011). Qualitative Research Methods. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  17. Hinton, D. E., & Hinton, A. L. (2015). Genocide and Mass Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Jenkins, A. H. (2001). Individuality in cultural context: The case for psychological agency. Theory & Psychology, 11(3), 347-362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kevers, R., Rober, P., Derluyn, I., & De Haene, L. (2016). Remembering Collective Violence: Broadening the Notion of Traumatic Memory in Post-Conflict Rehabilitation. Cult Med Psychiatry, 40(4), 620-640. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Levey, E. J., Borba, C. P., Harris, B. L., Carney, J. R., Dominguez, S., Wang, E. K., Boxill, R., and Henderson, D. C. (2013). Assessment of the needs of vulnerable youth populations in post-conflict Liberia. African journal of psychiatry, 16(5), 349-355. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Levey, E.J., Oppenheim, C. E., Lange, B. C., Plasky, N. S., Harris, B. L., Lekpeh, G. G., Kekulah, I., Henderson, D.C., and Borba, C. P. (2016). A qualitative analysis of factors impacting resilience among youth in post-conflict Liberia. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health 10:26. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Levey, E.J., C.E. Oppenheim, B.C. Lange, N.S. Plasky, B.L. Harris, G.G. Lekpeh, I. Kekulah, D.C. Henderson, C.P. Borba 2017 A Qualitative Analysis of Parental Loss and Family Separation Among Youth in Post-conflict Liberia. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies 12(1):1–16. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. LISGIS 2009 2008 Population and Housing Census. Electronic document,
  24. Moran, M.H. 2010. Gender, Militarism, and Peace-Building: Projects of the Postconflict Moment. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:261–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Okeke, B.I., J.G. Draguns, B. Sheku, and W. Allen 1999 Culture, self and personality in Africa. In Personality and Person Perception Across Cultures. Y.-T. Lee, C.R. McCauley, & J.G. Draguns, Eds., pp. 139–162. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  26. Panter-Brick, C. 2014 Health, Risk and Resilience: Interdisciplinary Concepts and Applications. Annual Review of Anthropology 43:431–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Paris, R., and T.D. Sisk 2009 The Dilemmas of Statebuilding: Confronting the Contradictions of Postwar Peace Operations. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Pruthi, P. 2011 Liberia Rebuilds Education System After Years of Civil War. Electronic document,
  29. Radelet, S. 2007 Reviving Economic Growth in Liberia. 133.Google Scholar
  30. Riessman, C.K. 1993 Narrative Analysis: Qualitative Research Methods Series, Vol. 30. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  31. Riessman, C.K. 2012 Analysis of Personal Narratives. In J.F. Gubrium and J.A. Holstein, (Eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: Context & Method, 2nd ed., pp. 367–380. Los Angeles: SAGE.Google Scholar
  32. Sen, A. 1992 Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Sen, A. 1999 Development as Freedom. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  34. Stichick, T. 2001 The Psychosocial Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Rethinking Traditional Paradigms in Research and Intervention. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 10(4):797–814.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Tol, W.A., R. Reis, D. Susanty, and J.T. de Jong 2010 Communal Violence and Child Psychosocial Well-Being: Qualitative Findings from Poso, Indonesia. Transcult Psychiatry 47(1):112–135. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tripp, A. M. 2015 Women and Power in Post-Conflict Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. UNICEF 2015 State of the World’s Children. Electronic document,
  38. Werner, E.E. 1989 High-Risk Children in Young Adulthood: A Longitudinal Study from Birth to 32 Years. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 59(1):72–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. World Bank 2017a GNI per capita. Electronic document,
  40. World Bank 2017b Percentage of Enrollment in Secondary Education in Private Institutions. Electronic document,
  41. Zilberfein, F. 1995 Children of Holocaust Survivors: Separation, Obstacles, Attachments and Anxiety. In J. Lemberger (ed.) A Global Perspective on Working with Holocaust Survivors and the Second Generation. pp. 413–422. Jerusalem: JDC-Brookdale Institute of Gerontology and Human Development.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth J. Levey
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author return OK on get
  • Lance D. Laird
    • 4
  • Anne E. Becker
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Benjamin L. Harris
    • 6
  • G. Gondah Lekpeh
    • 6
  • Claire E. Oppenheim
    • 7
  • David C. Henderson
    • 4
    • 7
  • Christina P. C. Borba
    • 4
    • 7
  1. 1.The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global PsychiatryMassachusetts General HospitalBostonUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of Illinois College of MedicineChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryBoston University School of MedicineBostonUSA
  5. 5.Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  6. 6.A.M. Dogliotti College of MedicineUniversity of LiberiaMonroviaLiberia
  7. 7.Department of PsychiatryBoston Medical CenterBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations