Discussing empowerment and disempowerment

In Zimbabwe, researchers used a combination of visual methods, theatre and storytelling to generate an understanding of empowerment and disempowerment among youth, using them to facilitate a discussion about how they could help each other reduce the risk of experiencing further political violence. Working in groups of five to six youths, with men and women separate, research-facilitators asked youth to draw two instances from their lives: one when they experienced empowerment, and one when they felt disempowered. They were given large, spacious flipcharts and asked to also draw the circumstances of their stories. After drawing, we asked them to present their drawings and tell their stories with as much detail as possible. We then facilitated a discussion to talk through the actors involved, as well as power within, power with and power to - adjusting questions to the stories we heard. For the majority of the participants the repressive, violent context figured strongly in drawings and narratives of disempowerment. Drawings by male youth chased by state security agents reflected how youth are targeted by the ruling party, particularly in the run-up to elections, and forced to attend political meetings and commit political violence. Stories about empowerment brought up the first time an individual went to vote, or when they had taken a leadership role such as in youth groups. The structured discussions about power and agency revealed that family and peers were especially important for helping youth to stay safe and find ways to avoid the political, usually partisan actors that target youth.

To discuss agency in response to violence and insecurity in greater depth we adapted the ‘peeling the onion’ exercise (Hunjan and Pettit 2011) to discuss individual agency and power within, and collective agency or power with at the level of family and friends, the community, and beyond - the layers of the onion representing the different levels, starting from the individual at the centre. Using the concept of power oner we asked probing questions about who is helping and hindering individual and collective responses to violence, and how violence is overcome. These exercises brought out important differences between young men and women, with young women often choosing to hide at home to avoid risky public spaces, while young men spoke of temporary migration to places they considered to be safer, often through family networks. In this context it is hard to confront and challenge security agents, members working for the Central Intelligence Organisation (secret police) and ruling party' officials that can exercise power over youth; hence exit and avoidance strategies prevail as forms of agency. An important instance of collective power with came out when working with members of a group of young dancers and artists, who actively used their group to model new ways of civic engagement and purposefully refused to perform at political rallies in order to prevent being ‘captured’ and tied into party patronage (Oosterom and Pswarayi 2014). Though subtle, the group members rejected the acts of political parties without articulating their critique openly. In this context, few will dare to stand up and ‘speak truth to power’, or exercise agency in a confrontational way.

Visual mappings of actors who help mitigate violence are likely to bring out the actors that publicly take on violent actors, individually or collectively, but are less likely to generate information about people’s more subtle tactics of defying and tacitly resisting violent actors. Doing this requires a dedicated discussion or individual interviews guided by notions of passive resistance and defiance (Barter 2012), with a focus on the range of ways through which one avoids getting into trouble, or how one relates to, interacts with and deals with powerful actors. In Zimbabwe for instance this led to participants talking about zino irima — a term that refers to people just exchanging greetings with people who they know are part of the state security apparatus, but avoiding any further engagement with such people (Oosterom and Pswarayi 2014). Youth also reported that stealing fruit and crops from the land that belongs to the village heads, who usually are regime collaborators, was a way to defy and resist them (ibid.). Visual and narrative methodologies that used a power framework thus helped identify individual and collective tactics used by youth in their response to political violence, sometimes reducing the risk of being affected by it.

Agency and empowerment

The instances of agency I have described in this chapter are quite remarkable, given the rather disempowering circumstances people face in violent settings. The question of whether these actions are also empowering needs to be approached carefully. From the perspective of the individual one can use questions such as those suggested by VeneKlasen and Miller’s (2002) conceptual framework as to whether participants felt their actions strengthened their power within or contributed to power with and power to. Left aside here is the issue of those who have decided to join violent groups or take part in violence, while recognising that the sensation of carrying a gun and membership of violent groups can feel very empowering (Utas 2005). Whether people felt their agency contributed to any broader process change or gaining power is an entirely different matter, and many may not even think of their actions in this way.

The groups of young artists in Zimbabwe felt empowered because they had so far managed to stay out of political parties. They felt they had overcome something that not everyone can: stay out of party patronage, which is a form of power over that may increase access to opportunities but puts youth in vulnerable positions (Oosterom and Pswarayi 2014). They had set an example for other youth in their neighbourhood and their actions may have prevented other youth from joining violent party structures, but this could not be assessed at the time. Even if it did, the impact of the art group was highly localised. The female leadership figures in South Sudan recognised their agency as power to but not empowerment (Oosterom 2017). They were aware they were helping women who were experiencing domestic violence by intervening in marital disputes and talking to male leaders, but also felt their limitations and the magnitude of the problem when saying ‘everyday at least five women are beaten here [in the village]’ (Oosterom 2014, p. 39). These women maintained a level of influence and, most likely, were helping to prevent domestic violence from getting out of control. Yet, they alone could not stop high levels of alcohol consumption and address the absence of state protection - major contributing factors to domestic violence. In northern Uganda, the Acholi people did feel empowered when they had the opportunity to directly address political leaders when they had come for a village meeting, enabled by power with. In these situations they could even be critical of gaps in service delivery.

On the other hand, speaking individually to a civil servant or political leader in an office was often disempowering because, due to their authority, they felt they had to be humble and deferential (Oosterom 2016).

All of these examples are instances of ‘citizen agency’ as participants actively took issues into the public domain (Lister 2003). A sense of empowerment was prompted by people’s awareness of power over by other actors and the instances in which they were actively negotiating this power over, even if it did not lead to peace or a transformation of the overall relationships of power. Participants usually recognised that they were not necessarily gaining power, or making progress towards a more peaceful society. We often heard answers like ‘Yes this felt empowering, but ...’. The realisation of how difficult it was to change larger systems of violence, in which states often play a role, had a tempering effect on feelings of empowerment.


In this chapter I have used examples from settings that are affected by different forms of violence and violent conflict to show how violence impacts agency. The range of methods used in each study was firmly based on concepts of power in order to establish the diverse ways in which violence shapes agency, and also people’s responses. The chapter has pointed at a new understanding of invisible power in these contexts: not just as social and cultural norms, but also as embodied experiences of violence. Both forms of invisible power are socially reproduced, and both can affect agency through creating nearly subconscious boundaries around what a person thinks can be questioned, challenged and changed.

The distinction between ‘coping agency’ and ‘citizen agency’ and more political acts of negotiating and resisting the power of other actors helped us to think about what empowerment really means in these settings (Barter 2012, Lister 2003). While effects of violence are usually experienced locally by real people, its causes are multidimensional and at multiple levels. This makes it so difficult to resolve. I would agree with others who caution against romanticising all forms of agency in violent settings (Bordonaro and Payne 2012, Seymour 2012). At the same time, examples of people who are quietly or actively resisting violence are impressive and can be taken as a starting point for thinking about how others can be supported and encouraged to do the same.


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