Gender and Transitional Justice in Africa: Progress and Prospects

Thursday, December 31, 2009
Helen Scanlon, Kelli Muddell

Various models of transitional justice (TJ) have developed throughout Africa, but they have often failed to adequately address gender-based violence. While recent African TJ mechanisms have been innovative in developing means to address crimes against women, they continue to fail victims. Future TJ initiatives need to re-examine the types of violations prioritised, and recognise the continuum of gender-based violence that exists in pre-conflict and post-conflict societies. It is important to radically challenge the current configuration of processes to enable a more gender-aware and -inclusive approach to post-conflict reconstruction.

TJ models include truth and reconciliation commissions, legal and traditional mechanisms, reparations and security sector reform. Within these, many gender-related issues have been highlighted, including addressing high levels of gender-based violence during conflict and recognising the roles that women play beyond that of victim.

However, the need to address gender-based violations, especially in societies emerging from civil war and militarised environments, remains a slowly-developing field. Gender-related concerns are still often overlooked in TJ initiatives, leading to a failure to examine how gender inequalities underpin much of the violence taking place.

  • Security sector reform (SSR) programmes to date have focused on army and rebel militia groups and predominantly on male combatants. While women have played key roles as combatants, their involvement is often overlooked. SSR remains a male-dominated field. Engendering SSR requires the involvement of women's groups to better develop gender-sensitive strategies. However, the recent focus of a number of major donors on training in counter-terrorism skills rather than inhuman rights or gender equality has undermined the efforts of women's groups.
  • Truth Commission mandates are most often written, interpreted and implemented with little regard for gender-based violations of human rights. While some recent commissions have paid attention to women's war experiences, commission mandates often prevent abuse experienced predominantly by women from being addressed.
  • International law now provides for prosecution of sexual crimes or gender-based violence during conflicts. However, while some leading actors involved in orchestrating gender-based violence during conflict have been prosecuted, the majority have enjoyed almost complete impunity.
  • Reparations have the potential to facilitate the rebuilding of women's lives. However, reparations addressing gender justice are often an under-funded afterthought in TJ processes.
  • Many traditional TJ mechanisms do not involve women. They generally focus on a community truth told from a male perspective; women's truth is not seen as a priority.

Women should be viewed not only as victims but as full participants in TJ processes. The international community should promote greater participation of women in peace negotiations, where TJ mechanisms are first outlined. Further:

  • The issue of sexual violence should not be reduced to 'women's problems'. This not only silences the experiences of men and boys who have suffered from sexual violence, but also allows the structural issues that cause it to be overlooked.
  • Contextualisation is needed to understand the continuum of gender-based violence so as to better inform the design of TJ programmes. Rape may be prevalent pre- and post-conflict, for example, as well as during conflict periods. The fact that violence does not abate for many women during 'peace' times must not be overlooked.
  • Transitional societies need to devise judicial systems that prevent impunity for gender-based crimes. TJ has a potential role in creating mechanisms to ensure that violence does not simply move into the home.
  • TJ initiatives addressing gender-based violence need to consider not only physical, but also economic and social violations such as displacement, poverty, and social obstacles to the realisation of rights and entitlements.
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Gender Transitional Justice Africa, Scanlon & Muddell, 2009