Pilar Riano-Alcala


Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Lived justice: women's senses of justice, reparations and decision-making after wartime sexual violence in northern Uganda (2022)

This dissertation centers the lived experiences of women who survived wartime sexual violence and forced marriage during a war in Northern Uganda (1986-2008) between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels and Uganda’s government. In the post-conflict setting, little information exists on how women decide whether or not to continue forced marriages started in rebel captivity. More so, some fifteen years after the war ended, few feel they have realized justice in a legal sense, despite a successful prosecution of an LRA commander in the International Criminal Court. Drawing on lived experience as knowledge, this qualitative research addressed the following questions: Why do mothers decide to reunite or not with the fathers to their children born of forced marriage and sexual violence? How do women make these decisions? What is the prevailing sense of justice and reparation sought by women who had children from forced marriage? Over a seven months’ period in 2019, interviews, focus groups and storytelling were conducted with sixty-eight participants in Gulu district, northern Uganda. Most scholarly literature on wartime forced marriages and sexual violence focus on rights-based approaches to justice, limiting it to retribution for a legal wrong; yet women emphasize that justice is pluralistic and exceeds law. This interdisciplinary research develops a theory of lived justice, a holistic sense of justice that enables women, and their children, to live dignified lives after wartime sexual violence and forced marriage. The theory has four intersecting themes. The first theme is place-based justice realizable when women own land to live on. Land fulfills senses of home, identity and belonging. Secondly, compensation-based justice offers recognition of suffering, shattered dreams and time lost in abduction. Thirdly, needs-based justice enables lives of dignity by enhancing women’s livelihoods, children’s education, and housing. The fourth theme is relationship-based justice that involves love, acceptance and recognition of women’s victimhood, citizenship and humanity from their families, communities, and government. These four themes intersect to enable lived justice and contributes knowledge on justice and reparations for wartime sexual and gender-based violence especially literature that reckon with senses of justice.

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"We did so many things wrong." an approach to the sense of responsibility in the confessions of former low-ranking members of the paramilitary in Colombia (2021)

This qualitative research examines what sense of responsibility lower-ranking former perpetrators of paramilitary violence in Colombia elaborate in their confessional narratives for versiones libres, (free-statement hearings) a legal truth-seeking mechanism set in 2005 as part of a transitional justice process known as Justicia y Paz. Drawing from a critique against the confusion between ethical and judicial categories, this work assumes a relational-dialogical approach from where responsibility is understood as response-ability, or a person’s ability-to-respond. It looks into how an agent elaborates his responses in an attempt to connect not only with his criminal act (accountability) and with the transgressed norm, (imputability) but also with the individual(s) affected by their actions. The following questions guided this inquiry: 1) What responses were given by low-ranking ex-paramilitaries in judicial settings regarding their past actions? 2) What rationales for the violence perpetrated were included in those responses? And 3) What aspects may have influenced their confessions?A content analysis of a sample of versiones libres of four low-ranking former commanders of the Bloque Sur Putumayo (Putumayo Southern Bloc, BSP) was conducted, as well as qualitative interviews, and the observation of several sessions of the legal proceedings. Two themes were identified in their responses: 1) that all of them “just followed orders” from higher-ranking members of a chain of command; and 2) that they “believed too much” in local informants when planning and selecting the targets of their actions. Thus, they claim for themselves a higher-moral ground from where they question the terror perpetrated, yet their support to the paramilitary countersubversive cause is not confronted. Victims participating in these proceedings challenge such responses with their own questions and critiques. The way the judicial ritual is organized does not allow for a broader critique that may put into question the existence of the paramilitary, its countersubversive cause and the violence used. This work contributes to the field of transitional justice in furthering an understanding of the psychosocial dimensions of post-conflict processes, and by shifting focus from high-level former perpetrators to the experiences of those with lower profiles who enacted the violence on the ground.

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Memories of sounds: radio as sound representation among the Latin American exiled diaspora in the Canadian west coast (2020)

The 1970s and 1980s were decades of turmoil as political violence spread through different parts of Latin America in the context of the Cold War. Exiles from the Southern Cone made their way to the Canadian west coast, followed soon by Central American refugees. During this time, the emergent Pan-Latin American diaspora and local alternative media activists produce the radio program América Latina al Día [Latin America Today] or ALAD as a tool with which to create a sonorous space for discourse and praxis. Since its creation, the radio show has been bilingual, run by volunteers and has been on air for more than forty years from the Vancouver Radio Cooperative studios. This dissertation examines closely why and how different waves of Latin American exiles arriving in Vancouver in the last third of the 20th Century made use of bilingual radio. Through an oral narrative approach, this case study maps the radio experience as an everyday practice in the life of 10 former ALAD radio collective members during the 1980s. The author also weaves her own experience(s) as media activist, radio producer and exile. The study’s interdisciplinary focus provides rich insights in four broad themes that emerged from the oral interviews: 1) radio as a social and connective medium and its impact on the lives of the participants, 2) radio seen as a new kind of Latin American public plaza, 3) the emotional and physical challenges brought into the lives of the interviewees due to their participation in the radio collective, and 4) the process of producing ALAD as a practice in motion. This case study sheds light into the ways exiles recreate communication media to maintain a link with their home countries, while rebuilding their political identity and re-creating trans diasporic communities. ALAD is a unique example of a communication practice in motion (Rodriguez, 2001) and constitutes an exercise of cultural agency, not only for exiles and migrants from Latin America, but also for local activists who share the utopian conviction that alternative media can be a tool for social transformation.

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Songs of soldiers: decolonizing political memory through poetry and song (2020)

In January 1979, a ship ferrying armed Ugandan exiles and members of the Tanzanian army sank on Lake Victoria. Up to three hundred people are believed to have died on that ship, at least one hundred and eleven of them Ugandan. There is no commemoration or social memory of the account. This event is uncanny, incomplete and yet is an insistent memory of the 1978-79 Liberation war, during which the ship sank. From interviews with Ugandan war veterans, and in the tradition of the Luo-speaking Acholi people of Uganda, I present wer, song or poetry, an already existing form of resistance and reclamation, as a decolonizing project. Drawing from political memory in postcolonial, African, Black, Indigenous and Diaspora studies, I argue that truth-telling, a fundamental aspect of reconciliation and restoration of justice among the Acholi, can be achieved through poetic expression. This dissertation extends the technical definition of Okot p’Bitek’s Song school of poetry to include form and content and the space for social and political commentary in various voices and landscapes. The poet as historian, and the artist as ruler, both Okot p’Bitek’s concepts, are illustrated through “Songs of Soldiers”. This work is deeply rooted in displacement and the desire to return – continuing factors in where and how I think about and articulate myself.

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Sexual health and social suffering of youth who head households in Nakuru County, Kenya (2015)

The HIV epidemic and political violence in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990’s have changed structures of care as orphans become caregivers and socioeconomic resources are depleted. As a result, the number of youth who head households has dramatically increased in the region. The dissertation explores how young women who head households in two areas (one urban, one rural) of Nakuru County, Kenya experience sexual ill health and violence in gendered ways, how they embody suffering, and how they respond to suffering amid shifting systems of care in their social environment. Drawing on participatory and community-based research with 58 youth (29 young women; 29 young men) who head households aged 15 to 24 years, I document the interactions of youth with social actors in their environment. Drawing on theories of social suffering and structural violence, I describe their daily-lived experience and the perspectives of youth and community members on the causes and potential methods for alleviating suffering and improving sexual health. I elaborate upon the ways that young women experience and embody violence and suffering in their daily lives. Analysis reveals the relational nature of youth’s suffering and how they navigate supportive and exploitive social relations in daily life. The dissertation makes a contribution to the understanding of sexual health and social suffering of socially vulnerable young women in sub-Saharan Africa by showing the social, physical, moral, political and symbolic ways in which young women embody suffering. Amid exploitive and stigmatizing experiences, social support is shown to be critical to sustaining and increasing the young women’s life force, as they seek to endure and to create opportunities for themselves and their dependents: their siblings, children and ailing adults. The dissertation concludes that young women work to ‘re-create’ structures of support that maintain family relations and stresses the importance of social support in improving their sexual health and wellbeing. It is suggested that programs and policies should be reoriented to support young women in their caregiving roles and to create a supportive social environment by allocating resources to strengthen extended family and community relations.

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Post-Wenchuan Earthquake Rural Reconstruction and Recovery in Sichuan, China: Memory, Civic Participation and Government Intervention (2014)

On May 12, 2008, an earthquake of a magnitude of 7.9 struck Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province, China, which affected 45.5 million people, causing over 15 million people to be evacuated from their homes and leaving more than five million homeless. From an interdisciplinary lens, interrogating the many interrelated elements of recovery, this dissertation examines the post-Wenchuan earthquake reconstruction and recovery. It explores questions about sense of home, civic participation and reconstruction primarily based on the phenomenon of the survivors of the Wenchuan Earthquake losing their sense of home after their post-disaster relocation and reconstruction. The following three aspects of the reconstruction are examined: 1) the influence of local residents’ previous memories of their original hometown on their relocation and the reconstruction of their social worlds and lives, 2) the civic participation that took place throughout the post-disaster reconstruction, 3) the government interventions overseeing and facilitating the entire post-disaster reconstruction. Based on fieldwork, archival and document research, memory workshops and walk-along interviews, a qualitative study was conducted with the aim of examining the earthquake survivors’ general memories of daily life and specific memories of utilizing space in their original hometown. This dissertation attempts to contribute toward improvement of post-disaster reconstruction (particularly in China) by considering survivors’ social and individual memories, which conveyed their place experience regarding their sense of home in their day-to-day lives in their original home. This understanding is applied to explore the survivor’s sense of home after the post-Wenchuan earthquake relocation and reconstruction. This dissertation argues that the disregard of the social dimension in the relocation and physical reconstruction process resulted in failure of a creation of a sense of place among the inhabitants in the newly-built environment. Discussed also is how the local residents’ previous place-making experience played a pivotal role in the development of a new sense of home and in the process of social reconstruction in the new environment. It is suggested that government should guarantee the physical foundation of the reconstruction and ensure the local residents’ input will be utilized towards enhancing and improving the quality of post-disaster reconstruction, recovery and community resilience.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Framing violence in times of peace talks : El Tiempo’s news coverage of massacres committed during the 1999–2002 Colombian government - FARC peace process (2023)

This thesis examines the news coverage of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest and most influentialnewspaper, on the massacres committed by the FARC guerilla and the AUC paramilitary duringthe 1999 - 2002 peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC. The studyconfirmed some observations from previous research concerning the Colombian news ecosystemand the news coverage of the Colombian armed conflict by conducting a framing analysis of ElTiempo's news stories, front-page headlines, and standfirsts that were published within five daysafter the massacres occurred. It also identified problematic patterns in the news reporting of themassacres, such as the presence of victim-blaming accusations made by official sources andarmed groups and the poor journalistic fact verification of the events. This thesis contributes tothe communications and journalism studies in three ways. Firstly, it examines the news coverageof Colombia’s most important newspaper during a significant time period in Colombia’s history:the 1999-2002 peace process. Secondly, the study expands the comprehension of how newsproduction in Colombia operates in times of crisis. Finally, it demonstrates the researchcapabilities of KH-Coder, a text analysis software, and promotes its use in communications andjournalism studies.

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More than the silence of rifles: Guatemalan rebel combatants' perspectives on the eve of peace (2020)

This thesis analyses interviews with 13 guerrilla combatants originally conducted in early 1997, while I was a journalist with the CERIGUA news agency covering the Guatemalan armed conflict, the Peace Accords and the demobilization and reintegration into civil society of Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) fighters. The work gathers the testimonies of the guerrillas, including their motivations for joining the insurgency, experiences in the guerrilla, and feelings regarding the end of the armed conflict and their pending reintegration into Guatemalan society. I compare what the URNG combatants expressed in these interviews with other research regarding the 36-year conflict and especially studies documenting the experience of demobilized URNG members a decade or more after their reintegration into Guatemalan civil society. Based on this research, the thesis argues that, contrary to what is promoted in some Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) literature, in the Guatemalan experience collective reintegration proved more successful than individualized reintegration, and should have been provided to a much large number of former combatants. In this research, successful reintegration is interpreted as economic and social well-being, as well as the political and social engagement of the former combatants in broader Guatemalan society, particularly engagement aimed at addressing the factors that originally gave rise to the armed conflict. Special attention is paid to these criteria in the reintegration of female former combatants.

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Facing Medusa: (intimate) art and resistance in the Colombian armed conflict (2015)

The Colombian armed conflict is one of the oldest conflicts in the world. Numbers hardly explain the damage it has caused. Artistic responses to war emerge in this context, sometimes with the purpose of exerting some form of resistance to violence. I examine the ways in which similar responses operate and can produce social change, by tracing the work of three Colombian visual creators: Erika Diettes, Jesús Abad Colorado, and Juan Manuel Echavarría. This study reveals how their practice (re) configures certain spaces as intimate public scenarios of collective spectatorship/witnessing. The investigation also speaks of the inmost relation between the victims and survivors that they work with, spectators, and the creators themselves. That relation evidences the creators’ role as companions of the people they work with in conflicted contexts. Resistance becomes a central concept with which to understand both spectatorship/witnessing acts and the companionship relation mentioned above. Ultimately, their visual practice allows publics to resist emotional paralysis when looking at the horrors of war; that is to resist “turning into stone” when looking at Medusa.

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Pregnancy Loss: Women's Experiences Coping with Miscarriage (2015)

This research documents the personal stories of women who have gone through pregnancy loss and seeks to better understand their experiences coping with miscarriage. Through in-depth one to one interviews, I examine the positive and negative aspects of the participants’ experiences, what impacted and influenced their coping, and how they were able to deal with and overcome their loss. This qualitative study uses a narrative approach to analyze seven in-depth interviews. A combination of holistic and categorical analysis is used in analyzing the study's themes and findings. My findings show that women benefit from having support during and after their miscarriage, particularly from their spouse, family, friends, and health care providers. Participants noted that they experienced silence and stigma surrounding miscarriage, and that a considerable aspect of their coping involved talking openly about their experiences. Given the widespread nature of miscarriage, this study is important to the field of social work because of the significance of better understanding the emotional effects, responses, and coping strategies that women find to be of comfort.

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Women's Perspectives of Safety in Supportive Housing on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Downtown Core: "This is high emotion here. You're dealing with life here" (2015)

This qualitative research project sought to explore women’s perspectives of safety in supportive housing within Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) and Downtown Core (DC). Feminist participatory action research and intersectionality theory were utilized as a research framework. Ten participants, most of who were Aboriginal, were recruited for this project and focus groups and interviews were used for data collection. Five themes were identified using open coding. The first theme focuses on how intersecting stigmas impacted participants’ experiences and perspectives of safety within supportive housing. The second centers on how experiences of trauma informed some women’s housing decisions. The third theme portrays how the location of supportive housing was key to participants’ feelings of safety in their housing and surrounding neighborhoods. The fourth shows that participants viewed safety largely as security measures that were respectful of tenants’ rights to privacy and independence. The fifth theme reveals that pervasive problems in supportive housing put participants at everyday risk. These pervasive problems were identified by participants as being bedbug infestations, dangers associated with sharing bathrooms, social conflict, and negligence from staff and management. The findings of this research project suggest that women’s perspectives of safety were informed by their interlocking social locations, as well as their unique life experiences. This resulted in women having a range of views on what created safety in supportive housing. The findings also indicate that a significant portion of supportive housing stock is substandard in the DTES and DC, especially those that are single room occupancy (SRO) hotels, putting women at risk on an ongoing basis.

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Colombian refugees' stories of navigating settlement (2013)

This study examines Colombian refugees’ stories of navigating settlement and integration over time in the Greater Vancouver Regional District. The research question addressed in this study was: What are stories that Colombian refugees tell about their experiences navigating the settlement and integration process? Seven individuals participated in the study, three women and four men, all of whom had arrived in Canada as Government Assisted Refugees between the years of 2000 and 2007 and had settled immediately in the Greater Vancouver region. Information was collected through semi-structured narrative interviews which aimed to identify significant events in settlement over time. Using a narrative approach to analysis, the thesis first introduces each participant and the key aspects of their settlement journey. Next a number of major themes that appeared across the interviews describing the participants’ settlement journey in Canada are introduced, including the refugee experience, navigating around obstacles, and building community and helping others. Personal qualities and practices that served as key techniques for navigating the unfamiliar terrain of the new social environment in Canada are identified and explored in depth. Stories, language, and metaphors used by the participants challenged the concept of integration as a ‘two-way street’ and demonstrate that participants are active agents in their settlement and integration process, relying primarily on their own efforts to incorporate into the new society. Participants narratives revealed their collective identity as people that move forward, overcoming crisis and moving on to build community in their new context, help others, and plan for the future. The findings of this study are relevant to social workers across fields, social work educators, settlement service providers, and others who work in the refugee service provision sector.

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