Graduate and Professional Students Research Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Liberia

Graduate Student Research

Understanding sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) requires collaboration across a range of academic fields as well as different sectors such as justice, security, health, and economic development.  This is certainly true in post-conflict Liberia, where efforts to understand and address SGBV have received both national and international attention. 

Crossing these kinds of institutional boundaries is not easy. However, this past summer a multidisciplinary team of Emory graduate and professional students had an opportunity to do just that through a series of linked research projects on SGBV in Liberia.  Working with IDN, Emory’s Global Health Institute (GHI), and The Carter Center, MPH students Erin Bernstein and Rosalyn Schroeder, and political science PhD student Sabrina Karim, had a summer experience that linked research and practice related to this important social problem. 

Under the guidance of professors Pamela Scully in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Rob Stephenson in Global Health, the team designed three interlinked projects focused on two communities in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. The team collaborated on a mixed-method study using focus groups, in-depth interviews, and surveys in Peace Island and West Point, two communities in Monrovia. 

Bernstein looked primarily at the community perceptions about SGBV and available resources, while Karim focused on the security sector with emphasis on female UN peacekeepers, and Schroeder assessed access and availability of health services, including mental health services. After being awarded GHI multidisciplinary team funding, IDN connected the researchers with Carter Center programs addressing SGBV in Liberia. Prior to designing their surveys, Bernstein and Karim met with Tom Crick, associate director of the center’s Conflict Resolution program, to explore possible connections between their research and The Carter Center’s work.    

Bernstein developed her interest in the relationship between peace, conflict, and development as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.  There, she served as co-president of The Jazz for Justice Project, an organization that raises funds, awareness, and support for the power of music and the arts in the post-conflict reconstruction of northern Uganda. She also pursued research on sexual violence and conflict during a semester abroad in Northern Uganda. Bernstein’s experience in Uganda raised questions about the role of civic education in addressing SGBV, questions that inspired her work in Liberia this summer.  In Liberia, Bernstein looked at what laws and rights community members know, where they obtain this information, and how people respond when a family or community member is affected by SGBV.  For Bernstein, these are basic but extremely important pieces of data to collect as they form the foundation of understanding and effective action.  

Karim is also interested in community perspectives but with an emphasis on the security sector.  As a Fulbright Scholar in Peru in 2010, she looked at women organizing in Lima’s low-income communities and also at the experiences of female police officers there. As a PhD student in Emory’s Department of Political Science, she was awarded two years of funding from the Folke Bernadotte Academy Working Group on Peacekeeping—part of the Swedish Agency for Peace, Security, and Development—for a cross-national study of female peacekeepers and gender security. In Liberia Karim looked at recruitment strategies for and experiences of female peacekeepers with the United Nations Mission in Liberia. 

Schroeder’s interest focused on community accessibility to mental and reproductive health services for those affected by SGBV. She became interested in access to mental health when she worked with ex-gang youth as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Brooklyn. Schroeder’s research in Liberia was her first experience in Africa, where she found that mental health is associated with stigma and that mental health services are extremely limited with only one psychologist in the entire country.  Her research focused on the connection between SGBV and mental health and also how disability affected reporting and accessibility to services. 

Graduate Student Research

The team has noted that their preliminary analysis is yielding expected and unexpected results. The West Point community has better access to security services, in part, because police have a post there. Disputes related to loving, debt, and beating were common in both communities. In addition, there was limited women-to-women support for female security forces and peacekeepers. Accessibility and availability of health services were limited and there was a lack of trust between those providing services and those seeking services. Focus-group discussions yielded an interesting perspective on how SGBV presents economic consequences, such as paying bail, child support, and court fees if a family member is charged with or convicted of an SGBV-related crime. Overall, efforts to address SGBV confront numerous institutional challenges associated with lack of infrastructure as well as challenges associated with stigma and deeply rooted beliefs about gender. 

Bernstein found the experience challenging because of the skepticism she encountered from the two communities. 

“This was the first time I encountered skepticism from a community I was working with—a sentiment that suggested that the people I interacted with knew their country was well-researched; that a strong expat community had emerged in Monrovia in the past four or five years; and that foreigners often came, asked intimate questions, and left, with no indication of how the information would be used. The people we encountered in the West Point and Peace Island communities were explicit with their questions: “Why Liberia?” “What is the benefit to you?” “What’s in it for us?”

Schroeder also echoed these concerns. “Sanitation, education, and water are the issues that draw the most concern from community members, which initially made it difficult for us to ask questions related to gender-based violence. When a community doesn’t have basic needs, it makes it difficult to focus on other issues.”

Graduate Student Research

Despite these challenges, a pivotal moment happened just a few short days before the team’s departure. Karim explained, “The women of Peace Island created a forum a few days before our departure. The highest-ranking military and UNPOL [United Nations Police] women in the UN mission were initially going to be discussing issues related to a quick-impact project, and it turned out that the Peace Island women became the leaders of the discussion about women’s empowerment—demonstrating to the UN women the power of women’s voices in the community. It was amazing to see the women of Peace Island lead such an important meeting as a newly organized group, and to see how engaged the women of the UN mission were.”

In addition to their research findings, Bernstein, Karim, and Schroeder developed professional relationships with research enumerators and community associations in Liberia that they are committed to sustaining. They plan to continue doing research in Liberia in connection with the newly created Center for Applied Research and Training (CART) in Liberia, an organization created by their Liberian research team to advance Liberian researchers in Liberia. For the Emory team, their relationship with CART is perhaps the most rewarding and sustainable outcome of their work in Liberia. It is also proof that the connection between scholarship and practice can be made and sustained even amid challenges.

For more information about the CART, please visit:  http://www.cart-liberia.org/.

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