Transitional Justice and Gender Sensitivity: Challenges and Opportunities

Transitional Justice is a range of mechanisms and processes to allow a society to come to terms with a legacy of past human rights abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice, and achieve reconciliation within and between communities and peoples. It incorporates both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms. Examples of what transitional justice might include are: truth and reconciliation through inquiries and tribunals, prosecution and compensation to victims, as well as institutional reform. Transitional Justice measures are applied today in fragile and post-conflict settings where state and economic infrastructure may be weak. The positive effects of Transitional Justice may only be visible decades after a conflict has ended, yet it is still imperative that it functions, in order to re-establish the rule of law, enable societies to come to terms with the human rights violations they have lived through and rebuild a country post-conflict.

Gender and Transitional Justice

Flag of the United Nations cc Wilfried Huss / Anonymous

Flag of the United Nations
cc Wilfried Huss / Anonymous

Incorporating a gender approach in international relations and international policy-making is crucial to development and peacebuilding. For example, the UN Security Council Resolution 1352 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security urges all people involved in peace-keeping to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts. This is not only to address previous exclusion of women in peace and security, but also because women are seen to bring different views and ideas to the table when dealing with such issues as Transitional Justice. But, how do we go about applying this gender perspective to post-conflict situations? How is a gendered approach realistically incorporated into and through Transitional Justice processes? What problems and challenges arise from this approach?

On Friday 26th April, we, Imogen and Chris, participated in a European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO) Brown Bag Lunch: “Transitional Justice and gender sensitivity: Challenges and Opportunitieslead by Karlijn Leentvaar, Programme Manager at Impunity Watch. She presented a background discussion paper, “Recurring Obstacles to Gender Sensitivity within Transitional Justice”, and described Impunity Watch’s research into the consideration of gender in the truth, justice, reparations, and non-recurrence processes (TJRNR) in three countries: Guatemala, Burundi, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Representatives from NGOs such as the Causeway Institute for Peace Building and Conflict Resolution (CIPCR) came together with the European External Action Service (EEAS) in the seminar. Examples of gender sensitivity in Transitional Justice in countries such as Afghanistan and East Timor allowed different examples to be used to refute and support Impunity Watch’s findings.

The challenges of a gender sensitive approach to Transitional Justice

Women and children in Herat Afghanistan cc Marius Arnesen

Women and children in Herat Afghanistan
cc Marius Arnesen

Patriarchal social structures and cultural norms of many societies pose great challenges to gender sensitivity in many post-conflict situations. Impunity Watch asks the following question: “Do cultural and inherent gender roles and perceptions play a role [in the effectiveness of a gender sensitive approach in transitional justice]?” A point was made that in Afghanistan there is the danger of cultural imperialism and that international bodies such as the UN are viewed as “Western” and neo-colonial, something to be wary of. The war in Afghanistan is heavily bound up with the concept of liberating women from constrained social roles. In 2001, Laura Bush, the wife of George W Bush, made the following statement: “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes…the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”. Since she made this statement, gender has become a locus upon which both the Taliban and the ‘West’ play out their power games in reference to women’s (lack of) rights. In many situations, the focus of international policy also rests heavily on sexual violence prevalent in such ethnic conflicts as the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the breakup of former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. During a recent briefing, the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, stated that rape is now widespread in the Syrian conflict, where not only women, but men have been victims of sexual assault. This focus on sexual violence towards women is extremely important and necessary, but it also risks shifting the focus of the gender-sensitive debate away from the stigma experienced by men victimised by sexual violence.

Zainab Hawa Bangura cc United Nations Development Programme

Zainab Hawa Bangura
cc United Nations Development Programme

There is still a great acceptance that the mechanisms used for a gender-sensitive approach in transitional justice are difficult to define. It was highlighted in the discussion that progress in gender sensitivity in post-conflict situations can only happen if development aid and Transitional Justice mechanisms can target specific countries, regions and conflicts in an effective way. This is difficult in many post-war situations where the government and institutional structures are unstable, and short-term outcomes are hard to measure. Transition from instability to stability within a country may be long and arduous, and there are difficulties in measuring the impact of Transitional Justice practices, especially related to gender. It was mentioned in the seminar that donors and aid have become part of the problem in gender-related peace-building and transitional justice projects where large amounts of money are given to projects but the funds may end up in the hands of those who know the right words and donor jargon, and not used for the purposes intended. This is again because of the complexities of implementing gender specific Transitional Justice mechanisms due to the difficulties of pinpointing where aid must be concentrated for gender specific purposes.

Tunisian Flag cc US Army Africa

Tunisian Flag
cc US Army Africa

There was also discussion of the ineffectiveness and superficiality of quotas for women – the guarantee of a certain number of women in Parliament or the civil service. This is visible today in such places as Egypt and Tunisia, both countries in the process of transition since the uprisings of 2011. Tunisia was perceived as the pioneer of women’s emancipation in the Middle East and North Africa before the revolutions in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Islamist party Ennahda, in Tunisia, used quotas of women in government for their political campaigns after the ‘Arab Spring’. This does not only happen in the Middle East. It was noted in the seminar that gender equality is still something we are tackling in Europe. For example, in rural parts of East Germany, which is seen as a European liberal nation with 204/620 seats in the German Bundestag (Parliament) held by women, women’s empowerment is still weak at the local level. “Western” countries are advocating for women’s equality and supporting a gender sensitive approach to Transitional Justice measures in countries marred by conflict across the globe, yet there is still a lot of work to be done at home.


After hearing the many seemingly insurmountable challenges facing the inclusion and mainstreaming of gender sensitivity in Transitional Justice – and perhaps even development policy more generally – it is tempting to conclude that development agencies and NGOs face an impossible task. If so, could they reasonably put gender to one side as an important issue, but one they don’t have the capacity to address? Absolutely not! First, it is in times of transition that the greatest potential for change exists. These situations hold the opportunity to address societal perceptions of gender. Second, what is needed is a more realistic assessment of the change that donors and development agencies can effect. The Laura Bushes of this world need to take a more nuanced approach when praising the achievements of Western organizations in developing countries. Third, we must recognise that our own Western societies still have a long way to go in achieving a more just and fair society for women. In recognising our own struggles, perhaps we will develop a deeper understanding of the people we are trying to help.

By Chris Venables and Imogen Parker

About Imogen Parker

Imogen is a Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs. She started work at QCEA in January 2013 after completing her Masters in International Relations at Leeds University, UK.
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