ICTJ Program Report: Gender Justice

2/21/2013

In the first ICTJ Program Report of 2013, we speak with Kelli Muddell, director of ICTJ's Gender Justice program. The Gender Justice program was established as a response to the unique nature of the gender-based violations against women, in particular in the context of conflict or repression, and to help the field of transitional justice address them.

In this interview, Kelli Muddell reflects on ICTJ’s vision of gender justice, the challenges facing survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in times of transition, and how ICTJ is working to address inequality in countries like Colombia, Nepal, and Tunisia.


What is the philosophy behind the Gender Justice program? Could you describe the work that we do, our mission with this thematic program, and the goals that we want to achieve?

The creation of the Gender Justice program in 2005 came with the recognition that men and women experience conflict and state repression very differently. Men often have greater access to political and economic resources that women do not, resulting in women being vulnerable to specific forms of violence.

Unfortunately, these inequalities were often replicated in the design of many early transitional justice measures which tended to be gender blind.

These measures did not recognize that women disproportionately experience certain serious violations, such as sexual and reproductive violence, and they also often weren't recognizing that women experience the same violations as men, such as rape, killing, torture, and detainment, albeit in lesser numbers.

Nor did the field look at the unique ways women are affected by their husbands being killed or detained, or why the impact of internal displacement may affect women and make them more vulnerable to certain types of abuse.

ICTJ recognized that to help transitional justice measures acknowledge and address women’s experience of conflict and repression, we needed to have a specific program dedicated to examining the gender dimension of human rights violations.


ICTJ's strategic plan specifically references victims' rights and addressing gender-based violence, and explains that our gender justice unit “works to ensure the participation of victims of gender-based violations in designing transitional justice measures." How is the work of this unit integrated with the work of other thematic units and our country offices? What is meant by "gender justice?"

The term "gender justice" is about equal access to civil, political, economic, and social rights.

Gender justice is an understanding that women face specific barriers in accessing those rights, and an effort to establish how transitional justice can challenge those barriers, and at a minimum, not re-entrench those inequalities that exist in society.

ICTJ also aims to ensure that practitioners and others in the field don’t merely rely on gendered stereotypes of men and women, where men are thought of as perpetrators, and women as victims. For example, we've done projects on how female ex-combatants in various countries can access transitional justice.

However, we go beyond focusing only on women’s experiences. It is a fact that women are usually disproportionately affected by sexual violence and gender-based violence. But, we are studying sexual violence against men and boys, and we understand that the roots of that violence are very much embedded within the same motivations that lead to sexual violence against women.

One of the goals of the program is to integrate gender issues across ICTJ’s programming. All of our planning and implementation is done in coordination with both our country offices and other thematic units.

“The term 'gender justice' is about equal access to civil, political, economic, and social rights.”
    We rely on country offices because they're on the ground. They do the political analysis to provide information on the transitional justice landscape and where the openings are. We rely on them to help develop partnerships with those engaging on transitional justice issues and to help identify the gender concerns.

When they see where women are being left out, we try to provide technical assistance to those women's groups, to help them influence the transitional justice process.

With the thematic units, quite often we're able to do more innovative work because we're doing it cross-thematically. For example, with the Reparative Justice Unit we have been discussing the linkages between reparations and development, from a gendered perspective, with international policymakers and development actors.


What are the greatest challenges in dealing with the legacy of violence or repression that targeted women?

An issue we struggle with a lot is one that I think the field of transitional justice as a whole struggles with, which is the continuity of violence that exists in women's lives. For many women, the violence they face doesn't end when the conflict ends. In many post-conflict scenarios, there are still alarmingly high rates of sexual and domestic violence. And when this morphs into a privatized violence, the horror doesn't end.

The transitional justice field likes to define things in ways where there's a cut-off date to conflict or repression-era violence, which separates it from what could be called “ordinary violence.”

Now obviously, transitional justice measures have a lot of expectations on them and can't be directly addressing ongoing rates of violence.

But what I think we should see this connection and ask why women are so vulnerable to these specific types of violations in the first place, what allowed them to be vulnerable to such extraordinary levels during the conflict?    
"For many women, the violence they face doesn't end when the conflict ends."

This allows truth commissions to make recommendations that challenge those inequalities that have led women to be so vulnerable and seek to contribute to non-repetition of such violence.

Some bodies have already done this, such as the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation.

The Sierra Leone TRC recognized that unless women were afforded equal protections under the law, they would continue to be vulnerable to sexual violence and would likely be subjected to extraordinary levels of such violence if conflict broke out once again. So, the commission made recommendations that changes be made to laws on land ownership, inheritance, divorce, and marriage.

Reparations programs can also recognize and challenge gender inequalities in the way they design benefits for victims. For example in Timor-Leste, the interim reparations program implemented by the truth commission recognized that women whose husbands had died during the occupation and conflict were particularly vulnerable because they had limited access to jobs, and they prioritized widows as recipients of those benefits.

One challenge is how to design transitional justice measures in a way that adequately addresses gender-based violence.

Quite often in a truth commission, there maybe will be one person who is in charge of looking at how the commission deals with gender-based violence. That's not enough, and it can often become just a box that gets checked. These measures require significant resources so that they can adequately address these violations and support women victims.


In places like Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, women were at the forefront of revolutions. Today, however, women in the Middle East and North Africa are facing an uphill battle to benefit from the new freedoms of their societies. They are finding they must struggle anew to ensure basic political participation, let alone receiving redress for years of enduring violence and targeted repression. In Egypt, this deterioration has recently reached a horrific reality where women engaged in political protest and public demonstrations have been sexually assaulted. What are ICTJ’s goals for gender justice in MENA, and what progress is underway?

ICTJ is finishing up a two year project funded by the European Union that has been focused on building the capacity of women’s groups in the MENA region. Women’s activists from Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, and Tunisia have participated in regional and country-specific workshops aimed increasing their knowledge about transitional justice and how it can be used to address gender-based violence.

Going forward, ICTJ’s Gender Justice Program will be largely focused on Tunisia where there is a transitional justice law now before the legislative body. There, we have had a focus on influencing the development of this law and building the knowledge and skills of women’s groups on transitional justice.

We conducted meetings and a workshop with women’s groups, both secular and Islamist, to talk about the various elements of transitional justice, particularly on truth seeking, but also reparations and criminal justice and institutional reform.

“Without dialogue between the secular and Islamist women’s groups, any transitional justice mechanism that's created for Tunisia is going to be seen by one side or the other as politically motivated.”
    Perhaps the largest challenge we face in Tunisia is that the women's victim communities are divided between the Islamist groups and the secular groups. Though the secular groups were definitely targeted under Ben Ali, fewer suffered imprisonment than the Islamist women. When you speak to them, what each side wants from transitional justice tends to be very similar, but there is a lot of distrust between them.

We are working with both of these groups to talk about transitional justice, what types of justice demands they have, and trying to find some level of dialogue that can take place.

Without dialogue between the secular and Islamist women’s groups, any transitional justice mechanism that's created for Tunisia is going to be seen by one side or the other as politically motivated, and there's going to be a serious lack of credibility, even if the mechanism is truly inclusive and transparent.


Transitional justice mechanisms can help societies face the realities of rape, sexual abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. However, one of the challenges, especially in truth-seeking initiatives, is that it is not often easy and sometimes not safe to openly admit to being a victim of sexual violence. How does the Gender Justice program help transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth commissions, approach this challenge?

One of the questions that transitional justice measures face, but particularly a truth seeking body faces, is how trust can be built in these communities.

We always advise that work is done very closely with women's and survivors groups that have been building trust for a long time, that have been documenting these violations, that have been assisting these women and can act as interlocutors.

Women often don't want to come forward. They don’t want their communities or their families know that they've been violated in this way.

Truth commissions need to provide ways for women to testify or give statements confidentially. When a victim comes before a public hearing, it's a matter of being able to provide testimony in a way that shields your identity. When giving statements, they should have a private room in which they can speak with statement takers, and the option to speak to a woman statement-taker.    
"One of the dilemmas with reparations is if something is specifically designed for victims of sexual violence, the victim that comes forward to claim the benefit is automatically identified."

Something that we always come back to in discussions with transitional justice practitioners and policymakers is the importance of the victim's choice.

In Sierra Leone, a national hearing on women took place in Freetown, and it was the most well attended of all of the hearings. In preparing for the hearings, the Commission made sure all of the victims who testified could testify privately. It was believed that they would choose this option.

However, many of the victims who testified wanted to do so publicly. They wanted people to see who they were and they wanted it to be publicly acknowledged that this is what they suffered. But in the regional hearings, that was not the case: the women wanted confidentiality.

So, it’s important to realize that victims handle these things in very different ways and that ultimately it should be their choice. Safety provisions should be there for victims, but ultimately they should have the choice of how they want to share their testimony.

I think the same advice will be given in Uganda if they should establish a truth commission and it's definitely advice that I think we're feeding into the development of the transitional justice policy right now, both in terms of truth seeking but also reparations.

One of the dilemmas with reparations is if something is specifically designed for victims of sexual violence, the victim that comes forward to claim the benefit is automatically identified.

And because in places like the Middle East where the stigma around sexual violence is intense, victims are worried about rejection of their families and husbands. For example, in Tunisia, victims have been silent for so many years, so it's going to be a significant challenge for any transitional justice measure there to make those victims trust that confidentiality can be ensured.


In Nepal we are seeing an intersection of so-called "peace time" sexual violence and issues stemming from the violations of the past. An incident at Kathmandu Airport where a girl was raped and the ensuing backlash has suddenly catapulted transitional justice issues to the forefront of the public debate. How is ICTJ currently engaged in Nepal in addressing sexual violence?

Up to this point, sexual violence has been largely ignored by any sort of legislation that's come about to deal with the conflict in Nepal.

Under the Interim Relief Program, designed to meet the needs of conflict victims, sexual violence victims are not allowed to access benefits. One of the final versions of a truth commission bill had an amnesty. It stated that those who had committed rape could not be granted amnesty, but the law did not broaden the definition to sexual violence.

We have done advocacy work with policymakers on the importance of taking these abuses seriously and their obligation under international law.

We feel that so far, victims of sexual violence in Nepal have been completely invisible in the process. While efforts to establish a truth commission are stalled, we can try to push forward some sort of justice effort on their behalf.

Where we see a gap and where we have maybe perhaps the most ability to impact the transitional justice landscape is around the issue of reparations.

There's been very little work done reaching out to sexual violence victims around what their needs are connected to the violations they suffered, and so we are conducting a study on their needs - if the government provided some sort of reparations benefits to them, what would best meet their needs? What were the short-term and long-term impacts that sexual violence has had in their lives? We will then use this information to formulate policy recommendations to the government on future reparations measures.


Reparations programs have tried to address specific long-term consequences of violence suffered by women. Can you tell us about the work of the unit in this area?

In addition to our work in Nepal, we are doing work in Colombia on the issue of reparations.

Our work in Colombia has so far been around working with the national victims unit that is helping design the reparations process, and inside that unit there is a gender group. They're at the beginning of the process of designing a policy document that will say how gender issues are incorporated throughout the reparations process, and how gender-based violence will be addressed.

One of the positive aspects in Colombia is that the victims’ law has provisions in it on how women can participate in the process.

What we've done as a first step is to do a study with a local women’s rights NGO on what that is looking like so far - both from the victims’ perspective and also with local officials who are administering reparations. The study will identify the challenges so far and we will then feed this information back to the Victims’ Unit, so they can begin eliminating those challenges.


Can you explain the concept of "transformative reparations" as they pertain to women victims?

This is an idea that is discussed at length in Colombia, particularly among women's groups. The concept of transformative reparations essentially asks, how do you challenge the structural inequalities in society that make women vulnerable to human rights violations, and influence the long-term consequences of that violence?

For example, in Morocco when they created the reparations law, they didn't base it upon the concept of inheritance like past compensation schemes, which were based upon Sharia Law. Instead, they recognized that the right of reparation was a human right and should be based upon gender equality. They prioritized the major part of the compensation to go to the wife as head of the household, and then equal amounts were given to children, regardless of sex.

So I think at a minimum, transformative reparations aim to not re-entrench gender inequalities, and instead, challenge them directly.

I think that the dilemma in this is there aren't that many concrete examples of how reparations can challenge these gender inequalities, and so I think sometimes what happens is expectations become very large around this issue of transformative reparations.

Gender activists, women's activists and perhaps victims will think reparations are going to have a significant impact in changing structural inequalities that have left them in poverty or with a lack of access to political and economic rights, so what we want to do is establish a very realistic and concrete definition of what transformative reparations can accomplish.


When it comes to criminal justice, we have seen historic cases and verdicts with international courts ruling for the first time systematic rape as a crime against humanity. However, the large scale violence against women continues in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and other places where rape continues to be used as a weapon of war. How do you see the capacity of criminal justice institutions to respond adequately to the crimes against women in conflict and repression?

There were so many advances: around the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and also in the formulation of the Rome Statute's definition of gender-based violence. The Rome Statute had provisions on having fair representation of men and women as judges and staff, and making sure there was legal expertise to look at sexual and gender-based violence.

Given the advancements made by the Rome Statute, there were huge expectations for what the ICC would do. Unfortunately, the Court’s indictments and investigations failed to deliver. There was quite a lot of input from women's activists trying to force the process, and the prosecutor at the time, to be more responsive.

“There were huge expectations for what the ICC would do. Unfortunately, the Court’s indictments and investigations failed to deliver.”
    But I think there has been improvement: Fatou Bensouda, in the role as Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, has made a commitment to reinvigorating an examination of gender-based violence in all of the cases that come forward. She has a very dynamic gender advisor who's been looking at the ICC for many, many years from the NGO prospective, so I think that's excellent.

When a few individuals are held accountable at the ICC, we need to examine what it really means when the vast numbers of perpetrators are never held accountable. Does it really deter people from committing these types of abuses?

What’s needed is a holistic approach to dealing with the issue of sexual violence, to ask why women are vulnerable to these types of abuses, and trying to break down within communities the shame and stigma around these abuses. So I think on criminal justice, we're on a slight upswing, but I still think we must stay vigilant to watch these institutions.

The Gender Justice program has been involved with ICTJ's work on complementarity. For the domestic implementation of the Rome Statute, national jurisdictions need to have legal expertise in sexual and gender-based violence. They need investigators who are trained and skilled to look at this, and look at those larger infrastructure issues, and to examine the criteria to which we're going to hold these institutions accountable.

In the Ivory Coast we're hoping over the next year to work with the special cells there. We've proposed to help evaluate their ability to deal with gender-based violence that occurred during the conflict, and to provide technical assistance around how to go about doing that.


Lastly, can you give us a brief overview of the countries and issues your program will be working on in the coming year?

As it stands now, we'll be working in six countries that we're focusing on-- Ivory Coast, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Tunisia, and Colombia. Our engagement in those countries very much depends upon what stage they're at in the transitional justice process and what mechanisms may already be underway.

With support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, in all of these countries we'll be working closely with policy makers and women's groups around the issue of how transitional justice can best deal with gender-based violence. As with all of ICTJ's technical assistance, we aim to give these dynamic societies the tools they need to face the abuses of the past. Our hope is that when a country moves on from political repression or devastating violence, women aren't left behind.


Photos: TOP: An Egyptian anti-government protester offers a flower to a soldier guarding Cairo's Tahrir square on February 12, 2011, a day after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ/Getty Images; Nepalese People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers carrying their children arrive for registration at the Shaktikhor cantonment site in Chitwan on November 19, 2011 PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images; A woman tends to customers in a convenience store in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in November 2012, GLENNA GORDON/ICTJ; The mother of Baraket holds a portrait requesting a trial for everyone who was tortured and murdered in the jails of the Ministry of the Interior during a meeting of the families of Islamist political prisoners organized by the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners on March 13, 2011 in Tunis FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images; A woman sells hot food on the street in Barranquila's neighborhood of Las Malvinas in December 2011, CAMILO ALDANA SANIN/ICTJ; A group of women gather in India PETER PARKER/PANOS; A Guatemalan indigenous woman addresses a panel during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, in April 2012, MARTA MARTINEZ/ICTJ; Ambassador Tiina Intelmann of Estonia, President of the ICC's Assembly of States Parties, addresses ICTJ's Greentree meeting on complementarity in New York, December 2011 ARNALDO VARGAS/ICTJ.