Men instigate war, women bear the brunt of it… During armed conflict, men are perpetrators of sexual violence and women are the victims… Men cannot be raped; women are the only 'legitimate' victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence… Whether implicitly or explicitly, these are some of the stereotypes and misnomers that seem to animate public opinion about gender harms during war – even in transitional justice discourse. Sadly, the face of sexual violence during armed conflict is almost always portrayed as Black, poor and female. However, this is not the complete story. In fact, the male perpetrator and female victim binary does not offer us an opportunity to appreciate the complexity and diverse experiences of gendered sexual harms during conflict.
While there is no universal or authoritative definition for transitional justice, nevertheless, the concept can be understood as the full range of mechanisms, measures and processes associated with a society's attempt to come to terms with legacies of violence, systemic human rights violations and divisions. The function of transitional justice is to build sustainable peace, justice, equality, reconciliation, democratic and socio-economic transformation.
As an unapologetic African feminist, I have held on to the view that women and girls are disproportionately and uniquely affected by conflict, and rightfully so. It is indeed women and girls who are victims of sexual exploitation, rape, forced abortion/sterilisation, sexual slavery, forced marriage, sexual torture, enforced prostitution, human trafficking, and the list goes on and on… And as a result, in the post-conflict context, it is women and girls who are left with the responsibility of raising children conceived as a result of sexual violence and often in communities that demonise and ostracise them. However, recently in Uganda, I was challenged to also see the other side of the story, a side that is often overlooked and neglected. I found myself questioning my outlook on matters that I had long settled on.
Needless to say, this was a difficult and uncomfortable state of being.
Three weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Institute for African Transitional Justice (IATJ) on the theme 'Doing Inclusive Gender in Transitional Justice: What might this look like in post-conflict African societies?' The meeting took place in Arua, Uganda from 3–7 September 2018. Captivated by the theme of this year's IATJ, I submitted my application to attend the programme under the assumption that the focus of discussion would be the inclusion of women in transitional justice processes. Boy was I wrong!
Doing inclusive gender in transitional justice? This phrase had to be unpacked. First and foremost, I begrudgingly had to concede to the fact that there is a tendency in the transitional justice field to equate gender with women, thereby 'exclusive gender'. Gender about women, for women and primarily by women.
Secondly, it became clear that if we want to do inclusive gender in transitional justice, we need to include everybody's gendered experience – men, women, girls, boys and gender non-conforming persons. If the term gender is understood as socially constructed norms and roles associated with being male or female, then it is important to not exclude or silence the gender harms and lived experiences of other genders during war. In the same breath, the inclusion of other genders' experiences of conflict should not negate or undermine the unique experiences of women whose experience during conflict only made it into the consciousness of the United Nations Security Council in October, 2000 with the adoption of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
Similarly, we cannot neglect to talk about male rape, castration, forced nudity or men who are forced to watch as their wives, daughters or sisters are raped. We also cannot overstate the complexities of male rape in many African societies, where male sexual violation is often conflated with homosexuality – a gender identity that is stigmatised and criminalised in many parts of the continent. Therefore, in the work that we do on transitional justice, there is a need to interrogate, (i) the ways in which hegemonic and hyper-masculinities vis-à-vis subordinated forms of masculinity interact during armed conflict producing a conducive environment for men to sexually violate other men, boys or gender non-conforming persons and (ii) bring a spotlight on male vulnerability. For example, young boys forcefully conscripted to become soldiers during conflict and the blurred lines between perpetrator and victim under such circumstances.
While sexual violence committed against women is an extreme manifestation of structural inequalities that make women particularly vulnerable and targeted in war, sexual violence against men, on the other hand, demonstrates the enactment of hegemonic masculinities which legitimise, maintain and reinforce the dominance of men over women and other forms of being a man – feminine or subordinate masculinities. Across all gender lines, however, sexual violence in these contexts is a weapon of war – a weapon that is used to shame, humiliate, punish and dominate another.
As transitional justice practitioners, it is important for us to be cognisant of the fact that the field of transitional justice is not static, but dynamic. In fact, many have said it is a moving target. As such our interventions need to reflect the evolving actors, dynamics and the lived realities and experiences of all genders. On our journey towards addressing legacies of armed conflict, repression and gross human rights violations in the many corners of the continent of Africa, we need to ensure that we bring to the fore what is silenced or completely left out. While women's experiences, voices and agency in transitional justice processes need to be valued, it is equally important to recognise the experiences of other genders, including men and other gender identities.
If we want to be true to the concept of 'inclusive gender in transitional justice', we need to reimagine what this would look like for the various contexts engaging in peacebuilding initiatives. That may mean that we think out of the box and move beyond 'TJ Toolboxes' which limit us in some respects. We also need to appreciate that perhaps the entry point to propagating healing and reconciliation may be the creation of safe spaces at a micro level that will highlight gendered harms in an inclusive manner.
If the South African experience has taught us anything, it is that formal transitional justice processes as seen in the Truth Reconciliation Commission are time-bound, have a limited mandate and limited financial backing. And as a result, certain voices and experiences have been relegated to the periphery. Therefore, informal interventions by stakeholders outside the state become crucial even after the formal mechanism has concluded its work. We need to create bigger spaces that make this possible in South Africa and other post-conflict societies in Africa.
This opinion piece was originally published by Voices360.