Transitional justice’s glass ceiling

Can transitional justice initiatives achieve their ambitious agenda of combatting gender based violence?

Image credit Bruce Strong for the Together Liberia Project via Flickr.

The spotlight on gender-based violence (GBV) has possibly never been brighter than in recent years. The United Nations has declared an annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is followed by its 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. Social movements like #MeToo and #TotalShutdown have shown that GBV has no borders and is perhaps the most globalized crime. Conflict-related GBV has been declared a weapon of warfare and it has finally become recognized as a war crime.

It is unsurprising then, that transitional justice processes—which aim to promote justice, reconciliation, accountability and peace after conflict—have also attempted to address GBV. These efforts have typically focused specifically on GBV against women. This focus has excluded women’s experiences of other human rights violations in conflict and GBV perpetrated against other genders. Consequently, there have been calls for transitional justice to expand its conception of a gender perspective within its processes. This presents a challenge, however, because transitional justice processes notoriously set high expectations for what they can deliver, with little empirical evidence that this agenda is achievable.

There is a clear need to better understand what transitional justice measures are likely to assist with the transformation of gender relations in post-conflict societies. The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) explored the relationship between transitional justice and state commitment to address GBV using data from 13 African transitional justice cases. CSVR’s study suggests that processes that included a gendered perspective, that were free from state interference, and/or emphasized repairing relationships were more likely to see improved GBV outcomes.

A number of countries tackled GBV very explicitly through truth commissions. The Kenyan Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate included a gender-sensitive definition of gross human rights violations that was not limited to physical violence alone. Consequently, it was able to show how gender, class, and politics interact and shape human rights violations. Jane Karemi’s explanation for why she was forced off her residential land illustrates how gender prejudices can affect women’s socioeconomic rights: “…I was seen as a single lady; that was why they did not give me my plot; I also did not have money to bribe them.”

Yet, some transitional justice processes did not have a gender-inclusive mandate but still positively contributed toward addressing GBV. There are clearly other ways to also promote gender justice goals. Victims’ and human rights groups usually do not sit idly by while a transitional justice process unfolds. They vocalize discontent with the omissions in the mandate and advocate for changes.

Transitional justice processes that have sufficient freedom to respond to pressures from these groups could impact positively on GBV outcomes even when their mandates are not explicitly gender-inclusive. For example, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was designed with sufficient independence to initiate women’s hearings in response to civil society advocacy. This allowed women’s experiences of violence to emerge, like Winnie Makhubela’s: “They started off by raping us. After they raped us, they threw us out of the window and they started shooting.”

Transitional justice processes that embrace a reparative approach also seem to provide a way to promote GBV outcomes. This approach prioritizes healing and reconciliation for survivors and consequently encourage survivor-centered participatory processes. Participatory processes that allow victims to shape the agenda and narrative can in turn shape the findings and recommendations of the transitional justice process. For example, women activists helped shape the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and 48 percent of the statements given before the LTRC were from women. Consequently, the GBV committed during the Liberian civil war was found to be a systematic and gendered human rights violation committed by all warring factions by the Commission. The Liberian example illustrates how a participatory and survivor-centered processes can provide a space for gendered experiences that are often silenced and considered taboo to enter public discourse.

Of course, transitional justice processes are not always positive experiences. There are many ways that these processes can go awry and negatively impact upon survivors. The results from the CSVR study simply suggest that some aspects of transitional justice seem more likely to contribute toward positive GBV outcomes. The way that these positive outcomes are realized are very complex and often indirect. It also seems that the potential positive impacts that transitional justice can make on GBV outcomes may depend somewhat on human rights groups in cases where the state has not explicitly prioritized GBV and gender justice. Transitional justice could potentially contribute toward positive GBV outcomes, but this is not guaranteed.

Expanding transitional justice’s gender approach is important. The full extent of gendered experiences of conflict-related human rights violations, including those of gender non-conforming people and men, should be investigated and redressed. But a delicate balance needs to be struck where survivors’ expectations are not unfairly raised and crushed by transitional justice processes that over-promise and under-deliver.

Further Reading