By Mayesha Alam
“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou
In the aftermath of political upheaval and mass violence, transitional justice mechanisms can help to form new political and social bonds. Transitional justice initiatives usually address the most egregious human rights abuses and are thus selective in terms of what crimes are addressed, which perpetrators are held accountable and even which victims are offered redress. On one hand, transitional justice offers a set of legal and political mechanisms that can be utilized to facilitate accountability for perpetrators, justice for victims, inter-group reconciliation and truth telling. On the other hand, transitional justice creates the opportunity to establish an accurate historical record of a conflict and to offer voice to the voiceless by acknowledging different narratives based on varied experiences that may include extreme physical violence or entrenched socioeconomic suffering and political marginalization. Transitional justice, by both the virtues of its conceptualization and its overarching purpose, is at once focused on the past, the present and the future.
And yet, an all too common problem in transitional justice – as with other aspects of peace-building and post-conflict transformation – is the exclusion of women’s voices in the design and implementation of restorative and retributive processes. This blog post is the first in a three-part series on analyzing and evaluating the impact of including women in transitional justice processes: how does the participation of women in transitional justice intiatives – as judges and lawyers during criminal prosecutions, as witnesses of atrocities in truth commissions, as trauma counselors, as beneficiaries of economic reparations and many other roles – enhance the strength of the peace achieved, the pace of reconciliation between previously warring parties, and the economic or sociopolitical recovery of the state? While this entry focuses on gender justice generally, the upcoming posts will focus on specific cases where women’s participation enhanced transitional justice processes such as truth commissions and criminal prosecutions.
When a transitional justice institution fails to recognize and adequately address this challenge, half the affected population is at risk of underrepresentation, which in turn, undermines peace and security. Gender mainstreaming in transitional justice is imperative to fulfilling the functions of transitional justice, not least that of facilitating a transition from conflict to sustainable peace. By paying attention to the post-conflict needs of both men and women, in other words introducing various gender perspectives, instruments and institutions of transitional justice can become loci for forming more equal gender relations by helping to re-conceptualize what is meant by victimhood, atrocity, inequality, redress and ultimately, even justice.
Gendering transitional justice has begun to occupy a growing space in academic debates and political consciousness in the last twenty years but remains a largely peripheral consideration. Gender, as a social construct, is the categorization that distinguishes men from women and through this categorization shape the roles, wellbeing and influence of each group’s members. Gender inequality, generally, encompasses the widespread and historical hierarchical positioning of men as superior to women in their perspectives, actions and potential which thereby makes the perspectives, actions and potential of women less than. (Buckley-Zistel and Stanley, 2012; Valji, 2009; Askin, 2003; Minow, 1998) Mainstreaming gender should be interpreted as inclusion of men and women in different processes of transitional justice, acceptance of valuable contributions to initiatives irrespective of gender-membership, and taking a head-on approach to challenges faced by both men and women. Gender analysis creates the foundation for establishing “gender justice,” which is, “the protection of human rights based on gender equality.” (Valji, 2010; Ambos et al., 2009, p.217) Gender equality is distinct from gender neutrality or “gender-blindness” because it rejects the ignorance of gender dimensions and demands equal protection and redress for men and women based on their experiences in conflict and their needs in transitioning from conflict to peace.
Quantifying the impact of gendered perspectives in transitional justice conflict transformation is difficult. Quantitative data is scarce and qualitative data is limited primarily to anecdotes recounted to journalists or researchers, oral histories and official records of courts, commissions or other local and international institutions. The Institute for Inclusive Security notes that although measuring the impact of women in transitional justice is difficult, the following holds universal truth:
“Women link official processes to communities and often provide information about crimes. They have knowledge of the distinct, complex violations of rights women suffer that can significantly inform truth commission mandates, judicial opinions, reparations schemes, and proposals for policy reform. Temporary courts and commissions function better when women are included throughout. Witnesses speak more freely to female judges. Male defense attorneys speak more respectfully to female witnesses. When a female judge presides, courts are more gender sensitive and provide more sophisticated witness protection. Moving women to actively participate in consolidating peace ensures that their voices, concerns, and needs are recognized and addressed.” (Page, Garlo and Speare, 2010, p.1)
The value of gender sensitivity in conflict resolution and in particular within the realm of transitional justice, is not limited to its applicability for providing redress to victims of gross human rights violations and historical structural violence. Introducing a gendered perspective facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of why a type of violence was committed, against whom and what place that kind of violence holds in the psyche of perpetrators as well as the normative culture of the society in question.
Wars do not end simply and transitional justice initiatives do not begin simply; trying to understand and address the gender dimensions of both make each even more complex. According to the former research director of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, undertaking a transitional justice initiative is much like walking a tightrope. Gender mainstreaming in transitional justice is an intricate, multidimensional and arduous process that requires stamina, political backing, local ownership and mass participation.