The perils of recognising local agency: a situational concept of agency and the case of victims of sexual violence and the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

Abstract

Following the so-called ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding research and efforts towards a ‘Global’ orientation in international relations (IR) scholarship, a number of authors have recently called for and proposed research approaches that recognise local actors’ agency in peacebuilding and other forms of intervention. These calls and proposals have revealed a serious lack of attention to local agency in previous research. But eagerness to recognise that which has long been wrongfully neglected also comes with new challenges. Most importantly, the emphasis on local agency runs the risk of overlooking or even misrecognising situations when and where actors feel severely limited in their possibilities and/or experience that their actions are of little or no effect. This paper develops a situational concept of agency for open-ended empirical analysis that explicitly allows for findings of severely limited or even absent agency in specific contexts. The concept’s analytical value is exemplified in an exploration of the case of victims of sexual violence and the post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Sierra Leone, based on recent field and archival research. Although this exploration reveals activism, individual initiative and coping strategies, these only amount to severely limited victims’ agency in the context of the TRC.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I use the term ‘group’ for people with a shared group identity and ‘class’—in the sense of classification—for people who have certain experiences or qualities in common without necessarily sharing a common identity.

  2. 2.

    These 38 interviews also include 3 skype interviews conducted with former expat TRC employees after my field research. Most interviews and all informal conversations in Sierra Leone were conducted without an interpreter in Krio, Sierra Leone’s lingua franca.

  3. 3.

    The term ‘friction’ is usually used with reference to Tsing (2005), see e.g. Björkdahl et al. (2016, p. 1).

  4. 4.

    Hard copies of the report were not widely disseminated and the online version is only available to those potential readers who have a fast internet connection (the documents are quite large), which is still rare in Sierra Leone.

  5. 5.

    I know of no detailed report or study on sexual violence against boys and men in war-time (or post-war) Sierra Leone. However, the TRC’s statistical report finds that more men than women suffered ‘sexual abuse’, defined as ‘forced stripping of an adult as a means of humiliation’ (TRC 2004b, p. 21).

  6. 6.

    Rifts between ‘elite women’ and ‘grassroots women’ have remained problematic in women’s activism in Sierra Leone. They were lamented in many of my interviews and conversations with women belonging or counting themselves to either category.

  7. 7.

    The name is a pseudonym.

  8. 8.

    The organisation UN Women provided funds for skills training, micro-credits and counselling for about 650 victims of sexual violence in 2010 (see also Conteh and Berghs 2014, p. 7). However, it seemed that Sia was using ‘UN women’ more as an umbrella term for ‘white women’ she had met in the context of her advocacy work.

  9. 9.

    The name is a pseudonym.

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Acknowledgements

Research for this article was funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). I would like to thank Felix Anderl, Susanne Buckley-Zistel, Mariam Salehi, Eva Ottendoerfer and my three anonymous reviewers for immensely helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. As always, all mistakes are mine.

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Menzel, A. The perils of recognising local agency: a situational concept of agency and the case of victims of sexual violence and the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). J Int Relat Dev 23, 584–606 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-018-0166-9

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Keywords

  • Local turn
  • Agency
  • Misrecognition
  • Transitional justice
  • Sierra Leone
  • Victims of sexual violence