Transformative Justice: The Economic Rights of Women in Transitioning Societies

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A rally organized in Dhaka, Bangladesh by the National Women Workers Trade Union Center in recognition of International Women's Day on March 8, 2013 (User Soman, Wikimedia Commons)

A rally organized in Dhaka, Bangladesh by the National Women Workers Trade Union Center in recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2013 (User Soman, Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, the former president of Colombia, César Gaviria, advocated for including non-combatant parties in transitional justice processes resulting from ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC, the guerilla group that has fought against the Colombian government since 1964. Also last month, the government of Nepal created two transitional justice initiatives, including a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearance. In both the Colombian and Nepalese contexts, the question of justice versus amnesty is a contested and polarizing issue. History records many examples in which justice has been placed on the backburner in the interest of peace. The underlying assumption in these situations seems to be that peace must come first, whereas justice can wait. And yet, historical experience demonstrates that sustainable peace is impossible without justice.

How a nation interacts with its past creates the foundation upon which its future is built. Transitional justice can be a tool for social reconciliation, political stability, and judicial reform—a vehicle to democracy. But the problem of the inadequate and unequal inclusion of women’s voices has consistently plagued transitional justice. This troubling trend has consequences not only for the women it disempowers but also for societies trapped in cycles of recurring violence and instability writ large. Repairing torn social fabrics, and ensuring good governance, requires the participation and protection of all members—not least of all the women who constitute half the population.

During negotiations, there is a tendency to broker a peace agreement for warring parties to offer amnesty for past crimes committed in conflict. When this happens, women are especially at a loss. Research and analysis shows that women bear unique and sometimes disproportionate burdens during armed conflict. In many places, including recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka and Rwanda or Bangladesh and Cambodia in the 1970s, women are targets of systematic and mass sexual violence, which can be used as a tactic of warfare by armed groups. Even when forcibly displaced as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs), women are also left with the responsibility of keeping their families alive and their communities intact.

In 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 which—for the first time—acknowledged not only that women are harmed in unique ways by violent conflict, but also that they play a critical role in creating peace, ensuring security, and building stability. This framework, based on the principles of protection, participation, and prevention, gave way to several other UN Security Council Resolutions (including 1820, 1888, 1889, 2106 and 2122) that together form the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda. Despite the normative and policy progress signaled by these developments over the past fifteen years, women continue to be at the peripheries of international human rights law. Even the Rome Statute, which, nearly 17 years after it was adopted by the International Criminal Court, remains one of the most historic achievements in human rights law, does not provide a roadmap to redress for women in the aftermath of violent conflict. The field of transitional justice needs a healthy dose of human development principles focused on maximizing individual potential, capability, and productivity.

This infusion of development principles must address a bevy of challenges. In countries where women lack basic rights to inheritance and property ownership, the harms they suffer during and after conflict are closely linked with their long-term and systematic economic marginalization. Women who fought during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War still report a lack of even meager reparations from the Bangladeshi government because, unlike the men they fought beside, they were not classified as freedom fighters. In post-conflict settings, where transitional justice mechanisms are employed to reform judicial institutions and strengthen rule of law, economic rights for women, who make up the majority of the world’s poor, must be central to the agenda. Land reform is a particularly difficult but imperative issue at the intersection of transitional justice, women’s rights and economic development. In Guatemala, women in civil society—including the indigenous, displaced and politically marginalized—advocated to include land reform in the language of the 1996 peace agreements. In Nepal, lack of legal identity has barred widows from exercising rights such as inheriting property from their deceased husbands. Women in conflict-affected and post-conflict societies lack access to capital and credit as well as to networks and markets. Despite possessing marketable skills such as baking, basket weaving, fishing, or dairy production, it can be difficult for these women to bring goods to buyers—and easy to fall prey to middlemen who seize the majority of profits.

The first step toward enhancing women’s productive potential is ensuring legal protections for women that address both physical harms and economic vulnerabilities. Legal protections can also help to weaken normative and sociocultural barriers that disenfranchise women. The enforcement of laws, however, is the most crucial point. Without resources and political will for enforcement, legal protections are simply paper tigers. Female perspectives and leadership are indispensable to ensuring diversity and providing role models for larger society. In its enforcement, comprehensive reform enables women to serve as police officers, judges, lawyers, investigators, and other technical professionals. Transitional justice initiatives must pursue women’s economic empowerment in a way that moves beyond provisions for basic education, one-time cash stipends or nominal loans. Although these initiatives are requisite in certain cases, they are not sufficient to transform lives.

Historical experiences of different transitional justice experiments, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslav Republic, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh, show that the voices of victims—both men and women—must be heard to remedy their grievances. Political and criminal justice arbitrated in courts of law can be important mechanisms for establishing accurate historical records and holding perpetrators accountable. Nevertheless, ensuring a path to self-sufficiency must be central to any approach that seeks to transform the lives of women who have survived unimaginable horrors. In the future, this approach will be salient for countries such as Libya, South Sudan, and Syria.

The time is ripe—in Nepal, Colombia, and many other countries experiencing and emerging from violent conflict—to ensure that transitional justice includes the protection and participation of women. This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of UNSCR1325 and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which were created to eradicate extreme poverty. The third goal, which focuses on gender equality, has seen the least progress globally, especially in conflict-affected and fragile states. The other goals cannot be fully realized without progress by women and for women. If women are seen only as victims, their potential to serve themselves and their communities will be undercut. As the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 MDG Agenda continues its work to set a sustainable development agenda, it continues to be essential that women empowerment is featured front and center.

Peace—in the political, social, and even economic sense—is much more than the mere cessation or absence of violence. Justice, including economic justice, is critical to achieving and maintaining peace. Efforts to provide a sense of justice for deep-rooted and traumatic grievances—including those that are physical, psychosocial, and material—are vital to transforming societies that have experienced acute political upheaval and bloody conflict.The political, social, and economic rights of women are necessary to building peaceful, secure and democratic societies. After all, any so-called democracy without women’s full and equal participation in all facets of society is no democracy at all.

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Mayesha Alam

Mayesha Alam is the Associate Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University and the author of Women and Transitional Justice: Progress and Persistent Challenges, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2014.

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