Milena Jakšić: Investigating the condition of the victim

Researcher portraits Article published on June 03 2020 , Updated on September 22 2020

Milena Jakšić is a researcher at the Institut des sciences sociales du politique (Institute for the Social Sciences of Politics) (ISP - Université Paris-Saclay, ENS Paris-Saclay, CNRS, Université Paris-Nanterre). Her research is centred around where the sociology of law and judicial practice and the anthropology of violence and armed conflict meet. After her initial work in which she looked at the way in which institutions and associations in France deal with the issue of sexual exploitation, she is now involved in a vast study of former child soldiers who are testifying before international criminal courts.

It all began in March 2003 when Nicolas Sarkozy, the then Minister of the Interior, passed the Internal Security Law. “This law stipulates that victims of sexual exploitation must be protected in the name of the fight against trafficking in human beings and, at the same time, it reintroduces into the French Penal Code the offence of passive soliciting, which de facto penalizes the very same people,” points out Milena Jakšić. How are the courts dealing with this ambiguity? The researcher looked into it and found almost no trace of cases of human trafficking brought before the courts, but many charges for passive soliciting or illegal residence which inevitably led to the expulsion of those involved.


Is access to the law a matter of course?

At that time, when institutions and were raising the profile of prostitutes “mostly from Eastern Europe or Nigeria, in an irregular situation in France”, they were above all interested in their journey as “victims”. “The scientific literature was caught up in a particularly divisive debate on prostitution, and very little sociological work was going on around the care of these women by the State and its administration,” says Milena Jakšić. She then began her first field survey, the aim of which was to retrace the path taken by these women to gain access to French law. “I followed them from 2005 to 2011, from the prefectures to obtain their residence permits, to the courts that judge cases of aggravated pimping, to the police to denounce their exploiters.” She highlighted this paradox in her first work La traite des êtres humains en France. De la victime idéale à la victime coupable (Human trafficking in France. From the ideal victim to the guilty victim). Found guilty of soliciting or illegal residence, they are apprehended as victims when it comes to defending France's abolitionist position.


Child soldiers in war crimes trials 

After her thesis, Milena Jakšić was recruited in 2003 as a research fellow at CNRS at ENS Paris-Saclay for another project. Here, she is studying the trials in which former child soldiers appear as witnesses before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. “The reason that I am so interested in this today is closely linked to my first research. The subject is different, but the questions it raises are similar.” The field study began in 2016. The sociologist regularly travels to the Netherlands to attend trial hearings, “in particular those of Dominic Ongwen, the former commander of a rebel group in northern Uganda - a group which kidnapped him at the age of 10,” the researcher explains. “This is the first time a former child soldier has been required to answer as an adult for crimes he committed when he was younger.” In four years, more than 200 witnesses have taken the stand and there are thousands of pages of transcripts to analyse. “The objective is to understand how these testimonies are established as forensic evidence, even though they are marked by many inconsistencies.


The anthropology of fear is soon to be decoded

“Most of these militia fighters were abducted at a very young age and spent 10, 15, 20 years of their lives in an extremely hostile environment.” In attempting to retrace their journeys, a second line of research has presented itself to the researcher which focusses on the anthropology of fear. “These testimonies by child soldiers are also important sources for describing armed conflict. These trials are therefore both subjects of research and empirical, ethnographic sources that allow us to understand situations of uncertainty in very threatening environments.” Her research is nearing completion and will result in a new body of work in 2022.

By her own admission, Milena Jakšić’s research work is fuelled by her own personal experiences, “both of war, as I'm from Yugoslavia and arrived in France at the age of 16, and from my own experience as an applicant for immigration.” Milena Jakšić has just been awarded the bronze medal by CNRS. “It brings with it a certain amount of individual recognition, but my thinking is above all nourished by group exchanges. The work of a researcher in humanities and the social sciences is the result of ongoing exchanges with colleagues and institutions in need of our expertise.