Gender and Reparations: An Interview with Ruth Rubio-Marin, Editor of "What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations"
Friday, August 17, 2007 2:49 PM

Reparations form part of any remedy for serious human rights abuses. In cases where governments have tolerated or been complicit to human rights abuses, reparations can play an important role in reconciliation, healing and moving forward. The International Center for Transitional Justice recently examined the gender gap within reparations processes, analysing different case studies from around the world in their publication: 'What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations'. For this week's Friday File, AWID interviewed the Editor of 'What Happened to the Women?', Ruth Rubio-Marin.

AWID: What prompted you to embark on this project?

Ruth Rubio-Marin (RR): The International Center for Transitional Justice had just finished a three-year research project on reparations, which resulted in the publication of the most encompassing volume to date on reparations legislation and policies worldwide (The Handbook of Reparations, P. de Greiff. ed. Oxford University Press, 2006). It became clear from that project that women had never been the protagonists of reparations discussions in the aftermath of conflict and authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The single most organised and well-documented (though still largely unsuccessful) movement for reparations for women to this day remains that of the so-called "comfort women," namely about 200,000 women from across Asia who were enslaved by and for the Japanese military during Japan's World-War-II colonial period, some forcefully taken from their homes and homelands to be raped daily by soldiers.

However, experience from the ground (the ICTJ's main realm of activity) and an increasingly wide literature was confirming that, far from an isolated instance, the case of the "comfort women" epitomised a larger reality: that of the multifaceted and distinct ways in which women have always suffered under violent conflict and authoritarian rule. Women, of course, suffer from operations that randomly target the civilian population. Like men, they are detained, imprisoned, extrajudicially executed, and subject to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment for fighting in resistance movements. Women are also frequently punished for their family or communal links. They are harassed, sexually assaulted, and held in prison for being family members of men involved in the conflict or simply for belonging or being perceived as belonging to and sustaining communities suspected of collaboration. Women are also persecuted, raped, forcibly impregnated, sterilized, and killed because of their ethnicity, race, nationality, or religion.

Experience from the ground also showed that once the conflict is over women often bear the brunt of the consequences of violent actions that target men, as the many single-headed households, the vivid expressions of the pain of the mothers of the disappeared, and the overrepresentation of women among the refugees or internally displaced populations in scenarios of conflict all can attest to. In the aftermath, women play an essential role working to sustain and reconstitute families and communities, demanding justice for their loved ones, and trying to revert life back to normalcy. So, if women have always suffered in gender-specific ways in scenarios of massive violations of human rights and are at the same time so active in the aftermath, why were there no women-centered movements claiming reparations? Why were women's groups not engaging in discussions about what forms or modalities of reparations would best fit women's needs? Why had some of the crimes specifically targeting women and children been traditionally left out of reparations initiatives in the past? In short, would it make a difference to think about reparations from a gendered lens? That was the question that we thought had never been asked before and that motivated the research that led to 'What Happened to the Women?'

AWID: Truth Commissions and reparations for victims continue to facilitate spirited debate in terms of justice, but rarely does this debate include a gender dimension. What are the major challenges to achieving gender justice in the reparations process that have been revealed through this collection of studies?

RR: The challenges around reparations are numerous, and one must say that many of these, perhaps even the greatest, are not sex-specific. Although reparations for victims of gross human rights violations are becoming an increasingly acknowledged feature in post-authoritarian and post-conflict societies dealing with the legacy of a violent past (a trend that is confirmed by looking at the recommendations of recent truth commissions), governments around the world often lack sufficient political will to implement reparations for victims, which, of course, leaves both female and male victims without redress.

Beyond this, all of the studies in the volume attest to the fact that women in transitional societies tend to be more active in relation to violations committed against their immediate family members (husbands, brothers, children) than to those committed against themselves, which they often consider marginal, private, peripheral, or secondary. It is, for instance, not uncommon to find that women who were harassed, detained, and subject to different forms of violence as family members of political activists almost never talk about their own experiences of victimization. Also, there are certain forms of violence, such as sexual or reproductive violence, the stigmatizing effect of which on the victim and her family can be so great that underreporting is both predictable and inevitable. Hence, the first challenge is to create the conditions for women to come out and speak their truth, a truth that encompasses the ways in which both the human rights of their loved ones but also their own human rights have been violated. An increased dialogue between women's groups and victims' groups and associations (often the protagonists of reparations discussions) could probably facilitate this process and allow the discussion of sexual and reproductive violence against women to occupy a more central place in reparations discussions.

Another common challenge to bringing gender justice considerations to the design and implementation of reparations programs has to do with the fact that patriarchal norms and culture were embedded in many transitional societies even before the outbreak of political violence. How to make sure that reparations programs do not reproduce sex discrimination can be a great challenge and points to the fact that reparations cannot simply be about "returning the women to where they were before the events." Think, for instance, of the restitution of land or lost property in a society where inheritance and ownership rules commonly discriminate against women. Think of the problem this poses for widows who find themselves heading households with an increasing number of orphans, sick, disabled, and dependants, widows who, absent the male figure, cannot even claim title to their homes or pieces of land.

Finally, as always, the devil may lie in the details. Women are often illiterate and have difficulties accessing information. Women often lack identification cards or bank accounts. They live in remote rural areas and have problems leaving behind their daily chores to travel large distances and reach administrative agencies. Women are often excluded when the language of official communication is different from their mother language. This "rudimentary" type of obstacle may actually account for the greatest difficulty in reaching out to female victims in many concrete scenarios. It would take a special effort to design procedures of dissemination of information, identification and registration of victims, processing of claims, and delivery of services or payments that take into account that women often lack the most basic skills and means to avail themselves of any form of redress.

AWID: The book presents a number of case studies analysing reparations discussions not only in countries as different as Timor Leste, South Africa and Guatemala but also in countries that have "transitioned" in different times. From looking at them would you say that there has been any progress?

RR: From the three cases you mention, only South Africa has paid reparations to victims thus far. Guatemala has had a National Reparations Program for some time, but it remains to this day largely unimplemented. Timor Leste's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation delivered only some minimal urgent reparations measures. It has recommended a more ambitious and longer-term reparations program, but the government has thus far failed to implement it. Thus we probably have to wait to see how these processes unfold before we can draw any final conclusions.

However, at the level of awareness around the need to "engender" the reparations discussion, one can certainly say that there has been progress. In the South African experience, sexual violence was not explicitly mentioned among the list of violations to be covered by the TRC and therefore in its reparations recommendations, although, in the end, several forms of sexual and reproductive violence were interpreted as falling under the concepts of "torture" and "severe ill treatment." Later (and as of yet mostly non-implemented) reparations programs, including those in Guatemala and Timor Leste, but also those in Peru and Sierra Leone, refer explicitly to "sexual violence" as among the violations that trigger reparations.

Interestingly, there is also a trend to move the gender and reparations discussion beyond the issue of sexual violence. For instance, the reparations recommendations in the Final Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor Leste include "gender equity" as one of five guiding principles that have inspired its overall conception. And this has presumably had a bearing not only on the way sexual violence has been handled but also on how other important decisions have been made, including the need to prioritize the most vulnerable groups of victims (including widows, victims of sexual violence, and single mothers) and the recommendation to earmark at least 50% of the total resources in the program for female beneficiaries. This trend to mainstream gender in reparations discussions can also be confirmed by even more recent or ongoing discussions on reparations policies, including those in Morocco and Colombia.

AWID: I'm interested in the question you raise in the Introduction, namely "What happens to the voices of these women once they find their day in court or a truth commission, and what happens to the women...?". Did you find an answer?

RR: Unfortunately, the answer is: "nothing or very little." Or maybe we should distinguish, as the question does, between the women and their voices. I think that their voices are actually having an impact in society. For instance, it is true that the ad hoc international tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have been criticised for not being able to do more for the women who came to bear witness in some of the most horrendous cases before the tribunals. However, it is also true that the contribution of victims and witnesses was crucial not only for the sentencing of a few criminals but also in triggering the evolution of international criminal law in ways that may reduce the impunity for crimes of sexual violence in the future.

Similarly, many women have found the courage to come forward and speak their truth in public hearings held by truth and reconciliation commissions. Some of these hearings were the most widely attended or were covered by the media. This has allowed the general public to bear witness to the enormous resilience of women survivors and, in some settings, to break, maybe for the first time, cultural taboos around sexual violence, raising awareness around its magnitude and often-denied political nature.

As for the women, some may have drawn a certain sense of agency from contributing to such causes. Others seem to be greatly disappointed by how little their lives have changed after their "stellar" intervention. Reparations for victims are often discussed at the same time that prosecutions or amnesties for perpetrators are negotiated and truth for victims and the wider society is sought. But when reparations are then not implemented, victims simply fall "out of fashion" and society moves on. One of the saddest experiences I had during the making of this book was when one of the authors, who was getting ready to gather and interview victims, told me that victims had agreed to the interviews but were asking whether we could at least cover their bus fare to get to the place and a meal for the day. Victims provide information, and this information is of use to researchers, prosecutors, judges, and society in general, but often times they get little or nothing in exchange. No compensation, no medical services, not even a proper apology. Now it is true that in many of the scenarios we are talking about, given both the type and the scale of the atrocities perpetrated, compensation cannot feasibly be more than a token recognition for what survivors have endured. But recognition is, in my view, the minimum that is owed, and sadly even that is often missing.

AWID: There is a discussion on the role that post-conflict masculinities play in shaping the future for women. How can a reparations process for gender-based violence incorporate a focus on masculinities?

RR: I wish I had the answer to that question because I think it is a crucial one. This volume focuses on women because women have been so overwhelmingly neglected in the past and because of the way gender inequalities generally result in women's overall subordination to men, limiting their opportunities of recognition and redress. That said, it would be also interesting to think about how patterns and notions of masculinity might interfere with either the assessment of the harms that men are subject to during times of repression and conflict or with their possibilities for redress.

Just to mention an example, notions of masculinity often seem to get in the way of the acknowledgment of the extent to which men (not only women) are subject to sexual violence in times of conflict. Similarly, although widows can express their pain for the loss of a husband, and mothers can express their pain for a disappeared son in ways that do not challenge prevailing cultural constructions of what it is to be or act as a woman, men may have a much more difficult time articulating pain around offenses committed against their women or even their sons. Think of the many contexts in which the public exposure of the fact that one's wife or daughter was raped would mean emasculation for the man or shunning for the entire family. Even those men willing to break the conspiracy of silence and articulate their legitimate pain might have to face feminist criticism of wrongful appropriation, given the longstanding patriarchal tradition of conceptualising sexual offenses as harming men's reputation and honor more that women's rights. Articulating pain around the loss of loved ones might be more difficult for those who have been raised to think that "as men" it was their primordial duty to protect the family. Constructions around masculinity may also limit men's ability to creatively explore ways of relying on each other for emotional healing and to organize the practicalities of daily existence as coping mechanisms. Every time I see the mothers of the disappeared organizing and politicizing to claim truth and justice for their loved ones, I wonder, "where are the fathers?" My guess is that addressing these issues would probably start a broader conversation about gender and violence that would shed light on the many intricate ways in which a violent and militaristic culture is a deeply gendered enterprise. For if the question of "where are the women?" still lacks an adequate response, so does the question of "where are the men?" who were victimised because they refused to act "as men"?raping or simply fighting, killing, and being willing to die.

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Published in: Gender and Reparations: An Interview with Ruth Rubio-Marin, Editor of "What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations", Rochelle Jones, The Association for Women's Rights in Development, 17 August 2007.