Monthly Archives January 2019

Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

Creative Development | Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos by Roy Huijsmans, Katarzyna Grabska and Cathy Wilcock

How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists ...

The ‘Economic Trauma’ that Zimbabwe faces by Susan Wyatt

The ‘Economic Trauma’ that Zimbabwe faces by Susan Wyatt

Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of Africa, now lies in an economic flux. A new term, ‘Economic Trauma’, is proposed in this blog to draw attention to the societal impacts ...

Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises may move beyond humanitarianism. This article details the problematic of the application of certain research terminology and calls for a changing of lexicons in war-to-peace transitions.

Over the last two decades, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crises’ have come, one after another. There was eastern Congo, then Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, and Syria, now Yemen, and more are in between. These are indeed man-made disasters and emergencies, causing untold suffering. But in 2007, David Keen advised that care should be taken when applying the word “humanitarian” to these crises, because, first, it implies that the solution lies with humanitarian relief. Though humanitarian response may alleviate suffering, it will not solve problems. Second, the word ‘may prejudge the motives of interveners as altruistic, when they can be much more complicated’ (Keen, 2007: 1).

Other terms are increasingly less applicable these days. Take “civil war” or “internal war” – does it still apply to the growing number of conflicts today with no clear front lines, where protagonists are not internal to any single country, and with no clear beginnings and possibly no definite endings, too? A war is aimed at a political or military victory, or at gaining control of territory in the conventional sense. Yet many of today’s “wars” are different – in some, protagonists have even developed an interest in instability as they profit from the war economy. There are more cases today of peacebuilding efforts failing, but not because of the complex constraints faced by peacebuilders. Rather, certain powers want them to fail.

Battles today are fought not just by armies with chains of command, but also by all sorts of irregular militias, criminals, or armed civilians with little discipline or no structure at all. “Soldiers” today include children kidnapped from communities with disintegrating social networks or youngsters peer pressured to join armed gangs.

The “end” of civil wars did not necessarily mean an end to violence. Rather, it merely marked a shift from militarised to other forms of social violence, as disputes over land, resources, and local rule continued. Severine Autesserre, who documented the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the peace agreement has been signed, is intensely critical of the widespread use of the term “post-conflict”, because it obscures the primacy of land and other micro-level issues causing violence and producing anguish that were kept invisible and never resolved by the peace talks. She unpacks the methodological shortcomings of peacebuilding in the DRC that led to serious policy failures (Autesserre, 2010: 2).

In Central America, the end of militarised conflict often meant the beginning of criminalised violence. Monitoring by local and international groups such as the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Violence suggest that two countries with UN-brokered peace agreements in the 1990s – El Salvador and Guatemala – have more people dying today from violent crime (homicide and murder) than those killed in combat or incidents related to fighting during these countries’ civil wars. “Post-conflict” El Salvador suffers more violent deaths today than conflict-affected Iraq. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for a country that is officially not at war.

In addition, over 10% of the violent deaths recorded each year around the world are also attributed to manslaughter – a figure that includes the thousands of refugees and migrants from post-conflict countries who drown or are killed in attempts (labelled “illegal”) to move across territories, or to escape the transitions that are supposed to make life better for them.

So perhaps a first step in better framing war-to-peace transitions is to improve the lexicon in use. Caution is necessary when applying the terms so far listed. But more importantly, assumptions need to be seriously questioned. The expression “senseless violence” for example is a misnomer that divorces acts of violence from its context and ignores the telling details. Violence makes sense to its perpetrators – it could bring reputation, status, and meaning, not just utility.

Mark Duffield once posited that more recent examples of violence could simply be new and innovative ways of projecting political power. As Keen pointed out, famine and hunger, too (not just wars), could be politically manufactured to serve political and economic ends. Hence, violence is anything but pointless. Keen also rejected defining large-scale violent conflict in terms of a “breakdown of authority”. Citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he pointed out that ‘the problem was not so much that authority had broken down; rather, it was being imposed with ruthless and vicious efficiency.’ Hence, he argues that to automatically claim that authority has broken down where large-scale violent conflicts take place could be extremely damaging because it risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments that have cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions (2007: 2-3).

Changing lexicons is not just a matter of semantics. Dropping some terms and using new ones can help frame the problems, and the responses, differently. A report on “Challenges in the Sahel” by the development agency Christian Aid, published in late 2017, used the term “perfect storm” to refer to that extraordinary combination of poverty, violent conflict, corruption, criminality, and climate change that drive the crises in the region. This implies that stand-alone security interventions not coordinated with development actors or other state actors, and vice versa, may not deliver desired results, or can even cause inadvertent outcomes. Solutions need to be smarter.

Also introduced was the term “unusual actors”, to characterise politicians who are corrupt but nevertheless get genuinely elected, or smugglers hunted by the law that may be the only providers of employment in disintegrating local economies. They may also spoilers of the peace who are predators to some but are protectors to others. “Unusual”, because though they may be “bad guys”, they are somehow tolerated, or even considered “good guys” by others. It posits that dilemma – how should humanitarian and development agencies deal with “unusual actors”?

To conclude, working differently on war-to-peace transitions may require changing lexicons, or at least requires more circumspection in the application of certain terms. We need to become better at bracing for perfect storms, and in preparing for, or at least recognising, the presence of rather “unusual actors”. Finding more comprehensive solutions means laying all options out, including decisions to walk away at certain moments.

Image credit: ECHO/H. Veit

About the author:

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher at the ISS. 


Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

During a recent field trip to South Sudan, a question haunted me: How can I tell the story of this place accurately without reducing in my research the lived experiences ...

Elections in the DRC: Compromises, surprises and the ‘game of gambling’ by Delphin Ntanyoma

Elections in the DRC: Compromises, surprises and the ‘game of gambling’ by Delphin Ntanyoma

The results of the general elections recently held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after being delayed for two years show interesting developments. The opposition remained weak despite ...

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered: a study of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana by Issah Wumbla

Witchcraft accusation and consequent banishment that still persists globally can be viewed as a form of violence against women and children. While it is believed that women are accused of witchcraft mainly due to their socio-economic status, an intersectional analysis of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana shows that other factors also contribute.

Could you imagine justice depending on the posture of a dying chicken? Such is the case of determining who is a witch in the witch-finding shrine at Gambaga. In the court of the god (judge), both the accused and the accuser present a live chicken to be used for the ritualistic trial process by the priest. If the slaughtered chicken lies on its breast as it dies, then the accused is guilty. If the chicken lies on its back with wings spread upwards, then the accusation is false.  This is what a partial observer of the of the witch trial process at the Gambaga witch-trying shrine might think. Believe it or not, witchcraft accusation and consequent banishment persists globally and can be viewed as a form of violence against women and children. However, the means of identifying a witch can be ridiculous as the one explained above.

While it is believed that women are accused of witchcraft mainly because of their gender, an intersectional analysis of witchcraft accusation in Northern Ghana shows that other factors also contribute. Ongoing research on the phenomenon of witchcraft accusation and banishment of women suspected to be witches indicates that the interaction of multiple identity categories such as gender, socio-economic conditions, age, or institutional practices influences the process of witchcraft accusation and subsequent banishment.

The call for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and the elimination of all forms of violence and harmful practices against women as stipulated by the Sustainable Development Goal 5 could not have come at a better time. At present, violence against women has assumed rather subtle forms, sometimes passing by unnoticed. Witchcraft branding and the banishment of alleged witches from their communities to seek refuge in witches’ camps, as is still practiced in Northern Ghana, is one such a subtle form of violence against women that requires the attention of scholars and policy-makers alike.

Understanding the phenomenon however, requires investigating it in a more nuanced and pragmatic manner than just considering it as old women’s issue that demands legal and or policy attention. An analysis of the way in which gender intersects with other statuses of power and how the daily struggles for dominion and control over socially valued resources between women and between women and men is vital. My resent research paper titled “Condemned without hearing”[1] provides an intersectional analysis of how gender interacts with age, and socio-economic conditions to contribute to the branding of some women as witches and the practice of banishment.

The research was conducted in the at the Gambaga Witches’ camp[2] and Gbangu in the East Mamprusi District of the Northern Region of Ghana. The study sought to find out how the social positioning of women contribute to discrimination against them in context of witchcraft accusation and exiling of suspected witches. Based on the objective, I did a mini survey on the socio-demographic characteristics of the inmates of the Gambaga witches’ camp and interviewed fifteen of them. The manager of the Presbyterian Go Home Project was a key informant. The interview questions were centered on their experience of accusation and the accusation process. The interviewees provided insights into the social values and structures that influence beliefs and practices in communities, as well as women’s own life experiences and strategies in coping with their situation. Fifteen people from the Gbangu community were also interviewed. Gbangu is a nearby community to Gambaga where the belief in witchcraft was common. These interviews and survey were conducted within a two month’s (mid-July to Mid-September 2017) field work.

Factors affecting witchcraft allegation

The findings are fascinating. Firstly, the study showed that gender is a major social category that influences witchcraft accusation. Women’s susceptibility to allegation is not due to their gender per se. However, their vulnerability emanates from the constructed roles and expectations of women and men. Some practices that are imbedded in some institutions locate some women in lower status of power, making them experience witchcraft allegation and its associated violence differently as compared to men and other women.

Secondly, socio-economic conditions of women contribute to witchcraft accusation. Both relative success in economic ventures and poverty make women the target of witchcraft accusation. The differences between the relative well-off women and the poor in relation to accusation is that those economically well off are also located in other social categories of higher status of power that work to their advantage amidst accusation whereas the poor women are usually located in other categories of low status of power making their experience of accusation and oppression different.

Thirdly, old age usually coupled with the status of widowhood and poor family backgrounds has proved crucial for the understanding of women’s vulnerability to witchcraft branding and exiling. Most of the women surveyed were widows and attested to being affiliated to and dependent on poor family members; as a result, they were defenseless when accused.

Fourthly, there are three levels of decision-making in witchcraft accusation within the accused community thus; at the family, the clan, and community chief’s level. Before reaching the witch finding shrine at Gambaga, leaders of at least one of these levels would have decided or been consulted. And at all these levels, the interactions of all the categories mentioned above influence the decision-making process. Having strong connections such as influential children, affiliation to royalty of good standing, being economically self-dependent as well as a lack of them influences the final decision regarding accusation. These apply to the process of accusation since it is related to the decision-making process.

Concluding remarks

Intersectionality and power relations (Foucauldian power/knowledge)[3] help in our understanding of how the locations of some women accused of witchcraft in multiple social categories (gender, socio-economic conditions, and old age) make their experiences of accusation different than others because the interactions of such multiple identities can mutually strengthen or weaken each other. The concepts also help in the making of meaning in the decision-making process and the process of accusation itself in witchcraft allegation.

Overall, gender, socio-economic conditions, and old age are key factors that influence accusation and related treatment. However, one of these categories or statuses of power considered in this research standing alone is inadequate to explain women’s susceptibility to witchcraft allegation and its related violence. Being placed differently in multiple statuses of power makes women´s experience of violence different from one individual to another. Depending on how many of these categories an accused person belongs to, a woman could be less vulnerable, more vulnerable, or not vulnerable at all. The interactions of gender with socio-economic conditions and age, and their embeddedness in institutions and structures in the accused original communities, influence the processes of accusation and decision making regarding suspected witches.

In general terms, I am convinced this can apply to other forms of violence against women. So, policies and programs aimed at curbing violence should consider the differences in women as starting point for analyzing such phenomena and how they should be addressed. Measures aimed at addressing violence against women might fall through the boundaries at the intersections of the various categories of power and gender related to the problem in context.

[1] Wumbla, I. (2018) ‘Condemned without Hearing: An Intersectional Analysis of the Practice of Branding, Banishing, and Camping of Alleged Witches in Northern Ghana’, ISS Working Paper Series/General Series 633(633): 1-51.

[2] Gambaga is the is the capital of the East Mamprusi District. The camp is in the middle of the town and serves as a refuge for accused witches who are banished from their communities.

[3] Sawiwki, J. (1986) ‘Foucault and Feminism: Toward a Politics of Difference’, Hypatia 1(2): 23-36.

Winker, G. and N. Degele (2011) ‘Intersectionality as Multi-Level Analysis: Dealing with Social Inequality’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 18(1): 51-66.

Image Credit: African Gender Institute/Groupuscule

About the author:

Wumbla Issah holds a Master of Arts in Development Studies-Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives, a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work with Political Science from the University of Ghana and a Diploma in Basic Education from Gbewaa College of Education. He has has varied research interests in gender issues and development, Child rights, youth and development, educational policies, and social justice. He is a professional teacher and social worker with experience in Teaching, Community Development, and Human Rights Advocacy.

What determines societal relevance? by Roy Huijsmans and Elyse Mills

What determines societal relevance? by Roy Huijsmans and Elyse Mills

An external committee found that the ISS’s research is highly societally relevant, but what does that really mean, and what determines it? Here four broad questions guide us toward a ...

The revival of Brazil’s cacao sector: is anything really changing?  by Lee Pegler and Luiza Teixeira

The revival of Brazil’s cacao sector: is anything really changing? by Lee Pegler and Luiza Teixeira

Bouncing back from a devastating crop disease (vassoura de bruxa), Brazilian cacao producers are showing a different face. Many of the old plantations have been ‘taken over’ by younger family ...