Women, gender and transitional justice


Susanne Buckley-Zistel

The field of transitional justice has recently been enriched by the systematic integration of gender perspectives that aim at moving the field’s normative bases, its practical implementation and its social and political impacts towards gender justice. In line with UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2000, as well as follow-up resolutions, the objective is to strengthen the women rights in post-conflict societies. Women should thus have equal access to peacebuilding and reconstruction, and sexual violence against women and girls should be condemned.

Integrating women and their rights

Against this background, it is extremely important to empower women as decision-makers, in particular since in previous transitional justice processes women were under-represented in courts, truth commissions and similar institutions. Furthermore, in early phases of dealing with the past, sexual violence against women was not addressed. There were various reasons for this: many women remained silent out of shame and fear of being stigmatised. The crime of sexual violence, moreover, generally received little attention, not least because it was often committed in private. There was also a tendency to focus on addressing physical violence against men, such as torture and killing, as there was more public awareness of these crimes.

In the meantime, some positive developments are discernible: for example, gender parity is close to being established among the judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and more recent truth commissions make it a priority to include an adequate number of female commissioners. What’s more, dealing with sexual and gender-based violence is also included in most mandates and statutes. This is partly a response to the extreme sexual violence perpetrated in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the related verdicts handed down by the international criminal tribunals, but it is also the outcome of influential lobbying by women’s rights organisations, which has put the topic on the agenda.

Nevertheless, women’s empowerment must continue to be addressed as a topic so that women gain access to decision-making roles and therefore to positions of power. However, it should not be overlooked that women are not only victims of sexual violence; they may also be actors and perpetrators. In addition, it is important to emphasise that men can be victims of sexual violence too.

Adopting a gender perspective

Making transitional justice gender-sensitive does not only mean involving women and respecting their rights; it also means adopting a gender perspective. Women and men are assigned different roles within society and this raises key questions for transitional justice: to what extent are transitional justice measures aligned with the different lifestyles of men and women? Is this aspect considered in the institutions’ rules and procedures? This is not about promoting a stereotypical view of masculinity and femininity: it is about understanding whether and how, in a certain context, men and women experience violent conflict or oppression differently according to their assigned social roles. For women, economic, social and cultural rights may be more important as women are often present in spaces – such as the family and the home – where violations of these rights can occur. Many transitional justice measures focus mainly on addressing abuses of political and social rights, thereby marginalising women and their experiences. So in addition to addressing crimes such as killing, disappearances and torture, it is important to ensure that transitional justice addresses economic, social and cultural rights as well. Otherwise, there is a risk that women will only speak out against crimes committed against their husbands and sons and their own experiences will not be considered.

Utilising the emancipatory potential of transitional justice

To take the transitional justice/gender nexus a step further: many measures are able to contribute – in a small way – to more gender justice in a (post-conflict) society. Transitional justice therefore has emancipatory potential as well. By drawing attention to gender-specific violence through legal proceedings, the abuses committed against women feature more prominently in the public discourse and may even be condemned. At the same time, the increased public awareness can also reduce stigma. Material reparations can go some way towards improving women’s financial circumstances which in turn raises their social status and offers them more opportunities for participation. At the very least, it sends an important signal that women can be economic actors in their own right. In addition, truth commissions should recommend that women should be involved to a greater extent in policy- and decision-making. Memorials can feature women’s stories in their displays and thus help to initiate a social debate about women’s experiences of violence.

These are examples of how it is possible not only to challenge society’s focus on men but also to address women’s role and experiences of war and repression. This can improve women’s status in (post-conflict) society and increase gender justice. This would be an important, albeit subtle contribution to women’s empowerment.

What does this mean for politics?

To sum up, a gender-specific, women-centred transitional justice policy does not only aim to increase the number of women in relevant institutions; it also seeks to address more women-specific abuses. Transitional justice measures should thus address male and female concerns simultaneously. The potential of transitional justice to make a small contribution to a gender-equitable society and to women’s empowerment should be supported.

What do these challenges mean for the German Government? How can these processes be supported from outside? Before providing any answers, it is important to note that addressing past violence involves highly complex and highly politicised processes in often deeply divided societies, and this must be considered in any form of external intervention. At the same time, these processes are deeply embedded within society, so the search for solutions and strategies must come, first and foremost, from the societies themselves. This is also important in relation to the role of women and gender in transitional justice processes. 

The German Government should therefore make the women/gender/empowerment nexus a reality. It should continue to insist that women are included in decision-making bodies and that their rights are respected, as provided for in Resolution 1325. Above all, this means supporting women’s advancement more generally so that they enjoy the same educational and career opportunities as their male compatriots.

Sexual and gender-based violence is now a field of action for many governmental and non-governmental organisations – and yet the number of abuses has not decreased. So it is essential to keep these abuses on the agenda and to support the women and men working in this field. When the German Government provides advice to transitional justice institutions, it should ensure that it focuses on both the male and the female experience. In addition, any form of support for transitional justice processes should be accompanied by follow-up programmes to guarantee that the recommendations (e.g. on reparations) are genuinely implemented. And finally, none of this is possible without support for gender equality, which must include working with local stakeholders, women and men alike, to determine how the emancipatory potential of transitional justice can be utilised to the full.

First published in PeaceLab Blog, 25 September 2018 https://peacelab.blog/2018/09/frauen-gender-und-transitional-justice


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Susanne Buckley-Zistel  is Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Director of the Centre for Conflict Studies at the Philipps-Universität Marburg

Issue: Gender

a. Gender in practice is primarily associated with the integration of women and their perspectives in processes and institutions. Which challenges need to be resolved through practical action?
b. Which other topics that can be addressed through TJ measures lend themselves to consideration through a gender lens?