International media often overlook nonviolent strategies to protect civilians during war, argues Oliver Kaplan during his presentation on Civilian Agency in Disrupted Societies. Why? Probably because these kinds of actions occur in distant places, and are hard to see and document due to the rapidly-changing nature of on-the-ground situations in conflict-affected areas.

Although civilian agency in wartime is hard to observe, such actions exist far more broadly than commonly believed — even in societies disrupted by extremist groups’ violence. Many participants themselves had stories to share to back this statement up. Two examples were:

  • Protests by women in Sierra Leone to push for peace prior to holding elections.
  • A village in Nepal that collectively decided to deliver food and supplies for the Maoist rebels in one single, defiant act in an effort to prevent future rebel incursions into the community.

We may conclude that nonviolent action during wartime is not culturally bounded. It is found on all continents and across a diverse mix of societies.

One commonly-held belief is that you need formal peace organizations to take nonviolent action during war. On the contrary, civilians can and do leverage existing social institutions to cooperate to protect themselves. Understanding these institutions is critical for understanding the prospects for nonviolent action.

Click here to watch Oliver’s presentation, in which he uses a drawing (at about the 5-minute mark) to drive home the point about how we often overlook this important phenomenon.