Feminism and the Kenyan TJRC (Part 2)

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Women singing at the launch of the TJRC public hearings in Garissa (April 2011)               (Kenyan TJRC)

Addressing the first feminist critique – the failure to address systemic and structural violence that tends to affect women disproportionately – was easier for us to address compared to other truth commissions given our broad mandate and, in particular, the requirement that we investigate violations of socioeconomic rights. To better analyze systemic and structural issues, including those related to socio-economic rights, we needed to address effectively the second critique – the failure to encourage active participation of women, a failure that had already been experienced by the Mutua Task Force.

 

In addition to dedicating specific parts of our statement-taking form to capturing the experience of women; training our statement takers on gender sensitivity, and ensuring a high percentage of female statement takers (43 percent), we also conducted thirty-nine of what we called women’s hearings in each of the places where we held public hearings. Our challenge was not just to encourage women to participate and speak to the Commission, but also to elicit testimony about violations and related issues experienced by them. The experience of previous truth commissions suggests that women who are willing to speak about past violations tend to speak as witnesses and observers concerning incidents that happened to others, usually the male members of their family. The characterization of such testimony as indirect is itself problematic, as it tends to de-emphasize the secondary effects of violations on family members and community members and more fundamentally emphasize the individualistic, rather than community-oriented, aspect of violations. While women may testify about what happened to others in their family or community because they are reluctant to testify about themselves, they may also focus on violations directly experienced by their family and community members because they see themselves as part of those larger social entities and, thus, are more likely than men to see such violations of “others” as affecting them, their families, and their communities directly. Nevertheless, we were concerned that some women might feel reluctant to share their own direct experiences of violations out of fear rather than because they adopted a more holistic approach to violations and their effects.

In addition to holding women’s hearings in each place where we held public hearings, we often had a prominent woman activist from each community testify about the experience of women generally in that community. We were able to do this in part because of the strong working relationship we had developed with Maendeleo ya Wanawake, the largest women’s membership organization in Kenya. We were thus able to explore at the local level some of the broader systemic, institutional, and cultural issues faced by women. To further broaden this analysis, we devoted one of our national thematic hearings to women. The purpose of the thematic hearing was to supplement the individual stories we had heard in the field – both from witnesses as well as local activists – with a more national and even international perspective on the broader systemic issues facing women in Kenya. Continue reading

Feminism and the Kenyan TJRC (Part 1)

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Commissioners Tecla Namachanja and Margaret Shava at the launch of public hearings in Garissa (April 2011)       (Kenyan TJRC)

In 2004 a task force chaired by Professor Makau Mutua travelled throughout Kenya to determine whether a truth commission should be established to address historical injustices.  In their report, the task force observed that while their provincial hearings were “on the whole” well attended, the number of women participating in the hearings was “low.” The experience of the Mutua task force mirrored that of truth commissions generally. Female participation in truth commission processes worldwide has been low, leading more recent truth commissions to create special units to encourage the participation of more women. Kimberly Theidon discusses attempts to incorporate a greater gender sensitivity to transitional justice processes, focusing in particular on Peru.

 

Christine Bell and Catherine O’Rourke pose three sets of questions as part of a feminist critique of transitional justice generally.  First, where are women (both representation and participation in transitional justice design and process)? Second, Where is gender (where are the voices and experiences of women with respect to conflict, human rights violations and justice)? Third, where is feminism (referring to the feminist critique of justice and its applicability to transitional justice)?

Feminist critiques of truth commissions tend to focus on two issues. First, truth commissions ignore or do not devote sufficient attention to systemic, structural, and institutional violence that tends to affect women disproportionately. Second, truth commissions are not designed to encourage the participation of women, and thus perpetuate the silencing of women in those societies.

The drafters of the Kenyan legislation establishing the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission were sensitive to these critiques, requiring that there be gender balance among the commissioners (we began with five male and four female commissioners); requiring that the chair and vice chair be of opposite gender; including sexual- and gender-based violence in the violations we were to investigate, and suggesting that we put into place special mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of women. During most of our operational period, our CEO was a woman; and during the fourteen months when we conducted most of our external activities (statement taking, public hearings, investigations, and other outreach activities), our acting chair was a woman – in fact Tecla Namachanja Wanjala was the first woman to serve as the chair of a truth commission. Continue reading

Brazil Protests Tie Present Grievances to Legacies of Dictatorship

As up to two million people took to the streets of Brazil’s cities last week, protesting a range of issues, I was struck by a comment at the end of one of the news reports.  The reporter quoted a protester as saying that “we never dealt with the end of the dictatorship and the legacy of authoritarianism, that’s why it’s so important that we’re waking up and taking to the streets.”

Indeed, Brazil is only now starting to deal with the legacy of its military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985.  Compared to other Latin American countries, there were few deaths, but large numbers of people were imprisoned, forced into exile, or lost their jobs as a result of their political activism.  Moreover, patterns of lack of accountability of police and military forces date from that era, and have never been changed.   The military, in particular, closed ranks to ensure that no officials were ever brought to justice.  In part as a result, police brutality is rampant, and the automatic response of security forces to social unrest is repression.  This is the connection between present and past that a new generation of Brazilians has recognized.

I was in Brazil last month for a discussion of measures to deal with the authoritarian past 25 years after the approval of a new, democratic constitution.  What was striking was the number of young people who have taken up the issue, even though they weren’t born at the time the military left power.  They see the connection to current corruption and abuse of power clearly.

Last year, after the Inter-American Court told Brazil to change its amnesty law to allow prosecutions for crimes against humanity (case is here) , but the Supreme Court declined to do so, President Dilma Roussef created a Truth Commission to look into what had happened.  The Commission, with part-time commissioners and a range of viewpoints, has taken a long time to get itself organized, and will probably need an extension to complete its work.  However, it spawned an interesting process of fragmentation:  impatient with the slow pace of hearings, states, cities and even universities have created their own Truth Commissions to look into what happened in their area.  They are holding hearings, commemorating victims, celebrating resistance to the military, and compiling information that they will both use locally and feed into the national process.   Their efforts combine with those of two other bodies:  a Commission on Amnesty, described here, that continues to hold sessions around the country where those who suffered economic harm as a result of the dictatorships’ policies can receive recognition and some compensation, and a Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances.  In addition, some prosecutors are looking into cases of forced disappearance, which, as continuing crimes, extend beyond the dates of the amnesty law.

It’s not possible to draw a straight causal line between the increased attention to the period of authoritarianism, and resistance to it, and what is happening in the streets  today.  But the renewed discussion of how people resisted the dictatorship, and what happened to them because of it, is no doubt one factor among many leading to today’s “wake-up.”