Women and the TRC

My role at the TRC was to assist the research manager and Commissioners to investigate and document women’s experiences of the conflict and of sexual violence in particular for the dedicated chapter on women for the final report. Gender has historically been neglected in truth commission processes, and abuses suffered by women tend to be under-reported to truth commissions (Nesiah 2006: 2; Hayner 2011: 86). It is internationally recognised that while ‘sexual abuse in particular is likely to be underreported’ (OHCHR 2006: 22), entrenched social norms and cultural practices may also mask patterns of violence against women.

Improvements in the gender sensitivity of truth commissions reflect changes made since the late 1990s in the legal, political, and sociological understanding of sexual violence in the context of conflict, such as the definition of rape and other forms of sexual violence in certain conditions as a crime against humanity under the International Criminal Court (Hayner 2011: 88; Rome Statute 1998). Recent truth commissions, including the Solomon Islands TRC, typically present a focus on women’s experiences of conflict, specifically name sexual violence as a human rights violation,6 and explicitly require special attention is given to the experiences of women in their mandates (Hayner 2011: 89). Nevertheless, while increased gender sensitivity of transitional justice mechanisms is a step in the right direction, it does not ensure culturally appropriate procedures are developed to achieve these goals. Numerous challenges relating to gender and truth commissions, and ideas to address them, are detailed in handbooks, reports, and policy papers (Nesiah 2006; Rubio-Marin 2006; World Bank 2006).

Common operating procedures to incorporate a gender perspective into truth commissions include: ensuring that female statement-takers are available, holding women-only hearings, and allowing women to testify anonymously (OHCHR 2006: 22). It is also recognised, however, that even when women provide statements to truth commissions, many discuss only violations committed against their male relatives and not against themselves (Nesiah 2006: 30). This may be because they do not feel comfortable reporting on their own experiences or they negate the political significance of their own sacrifices: ‘Whatever the reasons, subsequent research has suggested that this has resulted in significant underreporting of the crimes against women and a fundamentally distorted historical record’ (Nesiah 2006: 17).

Women in the Solomon Islands traditionally play an active role in conflict resolution and peace-mediating processes (Maebuta et al. 2009: 28). During and after the conflict, they formed a ‘Women for Peace’ group and advocated for peace with each other, government and community leaders, and militants (Leslie 2002; Liloqula 2000; Monson 2013; Paina 2000; Pollard 2000a, b). Despite these efforts, women’s voices in post-conflict Solomon Islands public life have been relatively sidelined—no women were included in the Townsville Peace talks, and ‘RAMSI has done little to draw on women’s experience of conflict resolution in Solomon Islands’ (Harris-Rimmer 2010: 11). Even with the purported high incidence of sexual violence perpetrated during the conflict (Amnesty International 2004; TRC Report 2012: 470-499), not one case of conflict-related sexual violence has been prosecuted (TRC Report 2012: 499). The TRC thus presented an opportunity for women’s experiences of the conflict and its aftermath to be acknowledged and documented, and for women to actively engage with transitional justice processes.

In accordance with contemporary truth commission practices, the Solomon Islands TRC Act specifically required special attention be given to the subject of sexual abuses.7 Early planning documents of the TRC by the Ministry of National Unity, Reconciliation and Peace (MNURP) demonstrated a clear intention to engage women in the truth commission process, and once established, the commission devised a gender plan, including quotas for gender representation in field staff, statements received, and a dedicated case study on the experiences of women during the conflict in the final report.

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