In this article, gender in conflict specialist Eva Charidas shares how vital gender inclusion is to peace processes and political transition.
On 10 April 2019, 22-year old Alaa Salah climbed the hood of a vehicle in Khartoum to protest the harsh ruling under former leader Omar al-Bashir. This photo soon represented the face of the civilian-lead resistance, alongside the prominent role Sudanese women played in the movement’s mobilization. Shortly after the toppling of al-Bashir, the government’s transitional military council conducted a full crack down of protestors resulting in the direct targeting of women and girls. Sudanese activists reported to Human Rights Watch that the Transitional Military Council’s Rapid Security Forces raped, gang raped and sexually assaulted female protestors participating in the civil disobedience.
It is now well known that women do not sit in the backseat when it comes to conflict and uprisings—women are not ‘passive victims’ to crimes of impunity, nor succumbed to dominate societal roles only in lieu of the absence of men. Many historical precedents have shown us the active realities that women face in war. Both Yugoslavia’s and Rwanda’s International Tribunals demonstrated that the grave occurrence of sexual violence is used as a weaponized strategy against a warring party—and transforms this previously ‘unfortunate side effect of war’ as an undeniable fact. The unacceptable plight of the Yazidi community shows how embedded the tactic of sexual violence can be as an organizational mandate within armed groups, reflected in ISIS’ brutal use of rape and sexual harassment to displace an entire ethnic enclave from their native land. Most recently, Sudan revealed to us the extent dictatorships are willing to go to silence calls for civilian-led rule through sexual harassment against peaceful protestors.
In light of these sobering historical events and their gendered realities, peace processes around the world continue to fail in providing avenues for women to become active agents in their own political transitions. The number of women in mediation remains shockingly low in contrast to international efforts to normalize the roles of women in peace and security initiatives. Between 1992-2018, women made up only 3% of mediators in peace processes globally. The importance of women in these roles is not only that it helps create a fair and equitable space for women to negotiate their own lived experiences under conflict and uprising, but it transforms the space surrounding them through access to justice; paving the way for their future realities in transitional governance.
The Importance of Transitional Justice in Political Transitions
Transitional Justice, a legal term coined and codified in the 80’s, sought to provide justice for victims alongside the facilitation of peace processes in order to restore a society’s institutions and sustain durable solutions to political grievances. There are many avenues transitional justice mechanisms can aid peace and security for civilians. The use of transitional justice in transformative mediation should be victim-centered and facilitate rehabilitation, reintegration and settle grievances. Women of all backgrounds in Sudan represent the demographic makeup of their movement, from grandmothers to university students and professionals—they comprise 70% of the total resistance that overthrew al-Bashir.
Strategies to facilitate transitional justice are comprised of truth commissions, coupled with criminal arrests, either through the International Criminal Court or national level courts to litigate perpetrators. Truth commissions offer avenues that allow women to shed light on individual and collective experiences, histories, and power structures. Women in Sudan have fought for years against patriarchal structures of power and governance. The use of sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence remains a historical tactic streamlined to silence dissent under al-Bashir. Truth commissions can identify discontinuities between what constitutes ordinary and extraordinary violence in Sudanese society and determine the root causes and societal consequences of sexual violence. But standardized transitional justice mechanisms alone do not settle grievances; it is important to explore a localized approach.
Grassroots-level mediation approaches to transitional justice offer avenues to achieving systematic change from the bottom up. The employment of female-led civil society organizations in truth commissions position women as agents for change and provides the space for the creation of gender-sensitive approaches in transformative mediations. Localizing transitional justice allows for avenues of justice to form that can produce long-term transformations of Sudanese society and facilitate gender equality.
Transitional justice mechanisms hope to further concepts of autonomy, empowerment, and gender equality in civil society for Sudanese women. Using this medium as a form of mediation creates an avenue for the inclusion of women in a political transition as transitional justice in its nature demands the assurance that women play an effective role in the pursuit of a just society. Women remained at the forefront of Sudan’s uprising to topple former President al-Bashir, but were sidelined in the formation of the civilian-lead transitional government. Formal inclusion starts at the individual level, in homes, grocery stores, schools and religious sites, and takes the work of all populations to create just and fair societies. Grassroots led transitional justice facilitates victim-centered healing towards crimes of impunity and restores integrity to all populations at play—this is what will sustain peace in any political transition, the recognition of grievances brought forth by 70% of the protesting population.