Women’s Engagement with the TRC

Women’s engagement with the TRC was encouraged through the establishment and staffing of the Commission, as well as through the public’s participation in the commission processes. Statistically, the Commission’s results in this endeavour were relatively successful.

Two of the five commissioners were women, and considering that one male commissioner was ill and relatively inactive until the time of his death, his position only replaced towards the end of the TRC’s mandate, for the

Gender composition of commissioners in several truth commissions Source

Fig. 6.1 Gender composition of commissioners in several truth commissions Source: Data sourced in Nesiah (2006: 10)

most part the commission represented gender equality. In comparison with other commissions worldwide, this is relatively good (see Fig. 6.1). To compare with Timor-Leste, geographically the closest other commission, just two of the seven national commissioners of the CAVR8 were women, and of the 29 regional commissioners, just ten were women (Nesiah 2006: 10).

Of a total 30 statement takers at the Solomon Islands TRC, 14 were women, with each provincial team consisting of roughly half male and half female staff. Understanding the entrenched gender segregation across Solomon Islands communities, the research manager and statement-taking coordinator intentionally recruited equal numbers of male and female statement takers to increase the likelihood of equal gender representation in the statements received. While the TRC did not succeed in equal gender representation of the statements received, 879 (or 37 per cent) of the total 2362 statements were made by female deponents—again a comparatively successful outcome when contrasted with other truth commissions globally (see Fig. 6.2; Nesiah 2006: 18). For example, the CAVR in Timor-Leste developed a number of methods to overcome cultural barriers that restricted women’s participation in the truth commission process; however, just 21.4 per cent of the total statements collected were made by women (Harris-Rimmer 2010: 12).

Gender composition of statements received in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste South Africa, and Solomon Islands

Fig. 6.2 Gender composition of statements received in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste South Africa, and Solomon Islands

Source: Data sourced from Nesiah (2006: 16) and TRC Report (2012: 541)

The Solomon Islands TRC public hearings varied in their gender representation. This was particularly influenced by two public hearings being held for ex-militants at which only men testified, and one public hearing for national leaders, which predominantly consisted of men. Conversely, one public hearing was dedicated to ‘women’ (see Fig. 6.3).

Sexual violations were included as a human rights violation on statement taking forms,9 although statements pertaining to sexual violence were difficult to attain, for reasons already noted and as discussed further below. Sexual violations comprised three per cent of the human rights violations reported to the TRC, however, the commission noted that ‘testimonies suggest that the real incidence was considerably higher’ (TRC Report 2012: 498). An in-depth case study on the experiences of women was also prepared and included as a chapter in the final report (see TRC Report 2012: 539-625). Over the course of the commission, three female researchers (including myself) were engaged to conduct the research into women’s experiences during the conflict, and specifically on the topic of sexual violence, which was not being represented in the statements received by the commission. In addition to a review of the statements and testimony from

Gender composition of public hearings Source

Fig. 6.3 Gender composition of public hearings Source: Data sourced from TRC Report (2012: 1212)

public and closed hearings, the in-depth case study on women involved a further 100 in-depth interviews and 11 focus groups that were conducted in Honiara, Guadalcanal, Malaita, and Western Province (TRC Report 2012: 541). With the coordination and support of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), regional and national workshops were held for up to 60 Solomon Islander women to participate in the preparation of a women’s submission to the TRC. The submission titled ‘Herem Kam: Stori Blong Mifala Olketa Mere’ (Fangalasuu et al. 2011) was presented to the commissioners and referenced throughout the women’s chapter of the final report of the TRC.

While far from equal, statistically, the gendered representation in the Solomon Islands TRC fared comparatively well. However, numbers clearly only tell one part of the story, and while useful for comparison on a global scale, they neglect the on-the-ground reality, complexity, and tensions. In interviews with TRC staff, a number of challenges inhibiting a more robust, representative women’s program were raised.

The TRC suffered from a range of challenges that affected its ability to investigate and report on the conflict and its consequences overall, including the focus on women’s experiences. These included challenges pertaining to administration and management, such as planning, financial administration, and stakeholder relationships; recruitment and management of personnel, such as the availability of qualified staff and efforts to maintain staff wellbeing; public engagement, awareness, and communication; field and operational challenges typical to the Solomon Islands context such as technical, logistical, transport, and weather difficulties and disturbances; and issues relating to the timing and duration of the commission. Efforts to engage women were a considerable challenge in addition to these issues, including in the staffing of the commission itself: apart from the commissioners and the field staff which were explicitly recruited with a goal of equal gender representation, positions at the TRC were predominantly male dominated and women tended to fill administrative and housekeeping positions.

The final report noted that the entrenched gendered segregation and cultural practices pertaining to women and men in the Solomon Islands limited the number of statements provided by women to the TRC (TRC Report 2012: 541). Traditionally, men are the public leaders in families and communities and typically spokespersons for these groups, thus they are generally the ones to initially engage with outsiders, such as visiting TRC staff (TRC Report 2012: 541). Women may not feel it is their place to speak on behalf of their family or community, or even themselves to outsiders (TRC Report 2012: 541). The final report notes further factors that inhibited women’s participation in the statement taking process, such as the short notice of statement takers visiting villages and the high chance of women being away from villages, as well as the tendency for men to speak on behalf of the family and community (TRC Report 2012: 541). For example, when the TRC statement takers introduced themselves to villages and conducted community awareness meetings on a statementtaking trip to the Weathercoast in which I participated, men and women often sat separately, with clusters of women and children sitting close together. When opportunities for questions arose, no women at any of the villages on this field trip asked any questions or made comments in public. Chiefs or pastors (all men) always spoke first, followed by other male community members.10

The overall lack of awareness and understanding of what constituted a violation of human rights was also a limiting factor for women’s engagement with the commission. Statement takers often described the need for greater public awareness and education on the topic of human rights, and violations thereof. They explained that while many people had experienced human rights violations, some were unaware that their experience qualified them to provide statements to the TRC. Gender-related crimes in particular are often resolved or managed according to local kastom or customary justice mechanisms. Women who experienced these crimes may have therefore been less inclined to provide statements.

Cultural protocols influencing interaction between men and women vary across the Solomon Islands, influencing the TRC staff and members of the public alike. While men and women were mostly willing to provide statements to female statement takers, many women were not comfortable to provide statements to male statement takers—nor would it be considered appropriate for a male worker to interview a woman alone or in a private place. Furthermore, female statement takers were not always at ease interviewing men. This inhibited statement taking in general, and was worsened for sensitive matters considered tabu to discuss, such as sexual violence.

 
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