A Window of Opportunity? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Impact on the Transformation of Gender Inequality in Sierra Leone

Term Paper, 2019

34 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Situation of Women Before and During the War

3. Transformative Potential of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
3.1 Participation of Women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
3.2 Recognition of Women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
3.3 Outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

4. Measures taken by the Government

5. Changes achieved in Sierra Leone

6. The Situation of Women in Contemporary Sierra Leone

7. Missed Opportunities in the Promotion of Gender Equality

8. Conclusion


Statement in Lieu of an Oath

1. Introduction

Women's rights and gender equality are an essential pillar of democracy (Szablewska and Jurasz 2019, 2) and a key factor for the security and stability of a nation (Crespo-Sancho 2018). “Strengthening gender equality and women's empowerment in fragile situations is critical for achieving sustainable peace” (OECD 2017, 1). The pursuit of gender equality must, therefore, be an integral part of democracy- and peacebuilding efforts. The post-conflict moment, in particular, is a critical window of opportunity in this regard. The transitional period after a conflict creates unprecedented opportunities for social change and the transformation of power relations (Reilly 2007; Szablewska and Jurasz 2019). Transitions thus provide opportunities to “address the low status of women and gender inequalities that had existed long before and that are linked to women's wartime experiences” (Valji 2010, 16), to “promote women's leadership, enhance access to justice, and build momentum for fundamental women's rights reform” (Scanlon and Muddell 2010, 11) and to alter “patriarchal systems and attitudes that have disenfranchised and marginalized women” (M'Cormack-Hale 2018, 4). The transitional period thus presents a formative moment for the promotion of gender equality. Mieth (2018, 8) argues that while such social change cannot be imposed from external actors, it can indeed be triggered. Transitional justice mechanisms can play a key role in this process by acknowledging and condemning past violations, empowering victims and laying the foundations for legal and social reform. Truth Commissions, for example, “present a medium to document patterns of gender­based violence, to suggest gender-sensitive reparations [...] and to enable the creation of more effective gender-sensitive programmes for post-conflict reconstruction” (Scanlon and Muddell 2010, 11).

The Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act mandated the Commission to give “special attention to the subject of sexual abuse” (SLTRC 2004a, 25) in its “work to help restore the human dignity of victims and promote reconciliation” (ibid). “While women are not explicitly mentioned in the TRC Act, given that they were the overwhelming victims of sexual abuse, the Commission interpreted this provision to mean that it should pay special attention to the experiences of women and girls” (SLTRC 2004b, 86). Given this special focus on women, its power to make recommendations and the fact that its establishing Act required the Sierra Leonean government to implement these recommendations (SLTRC 2004a, 45), the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which operated from November 2002 to October 2004, could be expected to have offered great potential to address gender inequalities. The aim of this paper, therefore, is to examine the transformative impact of the TRC on gender equality. In 2010, Lotta Teale wrote that “the level of gender justice achieved has yet to be seen and the final impact of Sierra Leone's transitional justice processes may not be clear for years to come” (88). Ten years on, this paper thus seeks to answer whether the TRC has been able to trigger social change towards gender equality. To do so, it will first examine the TRC's transformative potential by looking at the participation and consideration of women and the process outcomes. Subsequently, the level of realized potential will be analyzed by looking at the measures the government has employed and their impact on gender equality in Sierra Leone.

While the trials of the Sierra Leone Special Court have led to a number of groundbreaking legal developments that have significantly impacted international gender justice (Scanlon and Muddell 2010, 15), the Court is believed to not have offered much potential for the transformation of gender relations due to “the absence of a reparations mandate and the limited opportunities for victims to participate in proceedings” (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1286). Therefore, this analysis focuses on the TRC. It will begin with a brief account of the situation of women in pre-conflict Sierra Leone as well as during the conflict to make the case for the need for a transformation of gender relations. This will be followed by an analysis of the gender- transformative potential of the TRC and a subsequent examination of the measures taken by the government to implement the TRC's recommendations on gender equality. Subsequently, the changes that have been achieved with regard to gender equality in Sierra Leone will be examined. Finally, the position of women in contemporary Sierra Leone will be outlined, followed by a brief presentation of missed opportunities in the promotion of gender equality.

2. The Situation of Women Before and During the War

Throughout the history of Sierra Leone, women held a subordinate status and were discriminated against in law and practice. Most of Sierra Leone's laws were discriminatory against women (SLTRC 2004b, 98), “women had little or no access to justice” (Akiyode- Afolabi 2013, 227) and were denied basic rights and opportunities (Valji 2010, 8). In particular, customary law, which is the system of law mostly used by the majority of the population (Akiyode-Afolabi 2013, 169), is highly discriminating against women. Women were vastly underrepresented in the “traditionally male-dominated political and socio-economic decision­making structures of the country” (Valji 2010, 8) and were excluded from participation in many areas of public life (SLTRC 2004b, 93). They were further excluded from land ownership and were thus lacking economic power (ibid. 98). “Tradition and culture have also prohibited women from enjoying reproductive and sexual rights” (SLTRC 2004b, 101). Women were not allowed to refuse sex and had no control over their bodies (ibid). Early and forced marriages were prevalent, as there was no official age for marriage in Sierra Leone (Valji 2010, 8). In marriages, women were subordinate to their husbands (SLTRC 2004b, 98), and wife-beating was accepted and prevalent practice (ibid. 105). Domestic violence was not regarded as a serious crime, but rather a “family matter” (Valji 2010, 9). In general, there was a culture of violence against women that was surrounded by silence (SLTRC 2004b, 108). This held particularly for rape and other sexual violence, which largely went unreported (ibid. 105). Despite rape being legally recognized a crime, only the rape of a virgin was considered a violation (Valji 2010, 9), “whereas the rape of a married woman or nonvirgin is considered a contradiction in terms, and thus not considered a crime at all” (Graybill 2011, 105). It was believed that rape implied the woman's consent (Valji 2010, 9), and some ethnic groups dealt with sexual offences by forcing the victim to marry their rapist (SLTRC 2004b, 104). At large, a culture of impunity emerged regarding violence against women (ibid. 105). This is believed to have contributed to the horrendous crimes against women during the conflict. The impunity with which violence against women was treated let it become an accepted norm which then escalated during the conflict (Rehn and Johnson-Sirleaf 2002, 11). According to Rehn and Johnson-Sirleaf (2002, 10), the extreme violence against women during conflict is directly linked to the violence against women in peacetime. “The contempt in which women were held prior to the conflict also exacerbated the way they were treated during the war” (SLTRC 2004b, 108). As such, the widespread abductions, sexual enslavement and conjugal enslavement (“forced marriage”) of women and young girls by armed groups could be attributed to the impunity regarding sexual violence and the traditional prevalence of early and forced marriages (ibid. 103).

During the decade-long war, women and girls were victims of rape, gang rape, rape with objects, sexual slavery, slave labor, abduction, forced marriages, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, disembowelment of pregnancies, mutilation and cutting of sexual organs, detention, torture, amputations, enforced cannibalism, trafficking, and displacement (King 2006, 251; Sesay and Suma 2009, 24). A report by Physicians for Human Rights estimated that as many as 215,000-257,000 women and girls have been subjected to sexual violence during the conflict (Physicians for Human Rights 2002, 4). As a result of the violence, some of the victims have lost their reproductive capacity (King 2006, 251), many had to bear children born out of rape and sexually transmitted diseases, injuries and psychosocial traumas are widespread (Sesay and Suma 2009, 24). Moreover, many survivors of sexual violence faced stigmatization and ostracism (King 2006, 251), and the “breakdown of family structures caused by the violence and dislocation of the war led to increased vulnerability of young girls and women to sexual exploitation and poverty” (Sesay and Suma 2009, 24).

This brief account of women's situation highlights the dire need for a change of women's status, rights and opportunities in Sierra Leone. As the unequal and subordinate status of women before the war reinforced their gross abuse during the conflict, the promotion of gender equality seems an urgent imperative for the transitional process and the post-conflict period. In the following, the TRC process is, therefore, analyzed in terms of its transformative potential to promote gender equality.

3. Transformative Potential of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Maria O'Reilly, applying Nancy Fraser's tripartite model of justice to the peacebuilding context, defines recognition, representation, and redistribution as essential components for the attainment of gender justice in post-conflict contexts (2016, 3). According to her, transitional justice mechanisms can transform the structural inequalities that enable gender violence and discrimination by providing recognition of women as victims and survivors of conflict, enabling women to participate and have a voice as agents of transitional justice processes, and by achieving a gender-equitable redistribution of material and symbolic resources (ibid. 1; 6). Thus, the TRC will be examined with regard to the participation of women, the consideration and recognition of women and the outcomes of the process, including the potential for redistribution.

3.1 Participation of Women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Women's representation in the staff of the TRC was achieved through the lobbying of the Women's Task Force, an umbrella organization for women's groups, local and international NGOs and civil society groups (Sarkin and Ackermann 2018, 496). Thus, the TRC Act required gender representation to be taken into account in the selection of commissioners (TRC Act 2000,§3(1)(a)(v)). Three of the seven TRC commissioners were women; ensuring gender balance. This substantive female representation, as well as the previous experience of Commissioner Yasmin Sooka, a former member of the South African TRC, in dealing with gender and sexual crimes contributed significantly to gender-sensitivity in the process and to facilitate the participation of women (Sarkin and Ackermann 2018, 497; Williams and Opdam 2017, 1287). Sooka “advocated for the inclusion of a gender perspective in the investigation process, for the involvement of the UN, and for gender-sensitive training for staff” (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1287). All commissioners, staff and organizational partners of the TRC were trained in gender-sensitivity through UNIFEM and the Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights (ibid. 1288). Several measures were taken to increase women's participation in Commission hearings and to address the specific needs of female witnesses. These special provisions included a trauma counselling service, in which counsellors “met with each female witness prior to the hearing, sat beside her during her testimony, and counselled her immediately after the hearing and at follow-up home visits” (ibid), and the provision of transport, accommodation, board and medical assistance to facilitate women's participation (Valji 2010, 12). Moreover, “there were two female statement takers in all the districts, so that women could tell intimate details to another woman” (Graybill 2011, 107), and the TRC “ensured that more than 40% of the statement-takers were women” (SLTRC 2004b, 88). Special measures were also taken for the protection of female witnesses, such as closed women's hearings. These were conducted by female commissioners and sought to encourage women to testify about their experiences (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1288). A very progressive provision to increase women's participation and voice in the process was also the creation of three different testifying options (Guthrey 2010, 41): testifying in camera, testifying at the public hearing with their identity being shielded by a screen or testifying openly and in front of the TRC audience (Nowrojee 2005, 94). Given the stigma that surrounds sexual violence, such witness protection measures were a very positive step towards gender-sensitivity.

The special provisions to encourage women's participation resulted in high female representation among the witnesses. “In nearly all districts, 35-45 percent of those testifying in the hearings were women” (Graybill 2011, 108). Of the 7,706 statements taken in total, about 36 percent were from women (Conibere et al. 2004, 3). This high participation of women witnesses together with the substantive female representation in the TRC staff and commissioners ensured a relatively high representation of women in the TRC process.1 Women's involvement also had a positive impact on the recommendations of the TRC concerning reparations, which in the end were understood as essential for reconciliation (King 2006, 258).

The gender-representative composition and the gender-sensitive practices of the TRC enabled women to participate in the process; thus facilitating their representation (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1288; 1295). Through this representation, the TRC process featured one of the key elements for gender equality and thus offered a certain degree of transformative potential.

3.2 Recognition of Women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The TRC interpreted its mandate to give special attention to the subject of sexual abuse “to mean that it should pay special attention to the experiences of women and girls” (SLTRC 2004b, 86). Thus, women's experiences and needs have been considered from the outset (Graybill 2011, 107) and the Commission placed particular emphasis on “the experiences of both women and girls in respect of sexual violence, as well as their complete gendered experiences at a political, legal, health and social welfare level” (SLTRC 2004b, 87). Therefore, one day was set aside in each district for closed hearings for children and female victims of sexual abuse (Graybill 2011, 107). In addition, the Commission set up a three-day Special Thematic Hearing on Women devoted to examining the impact of the war on women and the specific ways in which women were targeted (ibid), during which only the women Commissioners questioned the witnesses (SLTRC 2004b, 90). These Special Hearings had the largest attendance of all (Nowrojee 2005, 95) and thus “brought national attention to the plight of women during the war as well as to the marginalisation of and discrimination against women prior to the conflict” (Scanlon and Muddell 2010, 12). Women's voices “were finally being heard by the nation” (Nowrojee 2005, 86).

Not all women's voices, however.1 Female RUF fighters did not testify at the TRC for fear of being prosecuted, even if they had been abducted or forced to fight (Graybill 2011, 108). Moreover, there was no acknowledgment for victims of sexual violence by the Civil Defense Forces (CDF), as the Special Court refused “to let CDF leader Norman testify publicly before the TRC, arguing that he had a right not to incriminate himself” (ibid). The same holds for victims of the UNAMSIL or ECOMOG forces as those did not participate in the TRC (ibid).

The Special Thematic Hearing on Women led to the gender-specific findings in the final report the TRC published in October 2004 (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1288). The TRC report featured an entire chapter on ‘Women and the armed Conflict in Sierra Leone', which was one of its largest (Sesay and Suma 2009, 24). It provided an extensive analysis of the experiences of women during the war and detailed the legal, political, social, and economic situations of women pre- and post-conflict (Akiyode-Afolabi 2013, 233; 235). In addition to the comprehensive depiction of the different violations, the report “also identified structural inequality against women in all spheres of Sierra Leonean society, including social, political and economic life” (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1289). Recognizing and considering these structural violations, the “report offers a complex account of the ways overlapping social, legal, political and cultural forces made women more vulnerable to a range of wartime offences” (Valji 2010, 12). In doing so, the Sierra Leonean TRC was the first to draw the link between the gendered violence against women during the conflict and the pre-conflict violence and gender inequality (Lambourne and Rodriguez Carreon 2016, 80; Valji 2012, 9). Local NGOs and UNIFEM also contributed substantively to the final report. Thanks to their submissions, the TRC's report is one of the most comprehensive on the perspectives of women (Sarkin and Ackermann 2018, 500).

The TRC placed special emphasis on the experiences and voices of women and girls, brought attention to their situation before and during the conflict and explicitly acknowledged their suffering. Thus, the TRC, through its process and its report, provided recognition of women as victims and survivors of the conflict. It “also promoted consideration of the experience of women and girls beyond sexual violence, including by examining the underlying social, cultural and economic status of women and girls and its connection to continued violence against women” (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1288). In this recognition, the transformative potential of the TRC's process and final report becomes evident. With the participation of women and their extensive consideration, the TRC thus contained two of the core components for achieving gender justice: recognition and representation.

3.3 Outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The TRC was mandated to make recommendations concerning the reforms and other measures, whether legal, political, administrative or otherwise, needed to achieve [...] the object of providing impartial historical record, preventing the repetition of the violations or abuses suffered, addressing impunity, responding to the needs of victims and promoting healing and reconciliation (TRC Act 2000, §15(2)).

After extensive consultation with civil society groups and women's rights organization, who could make suggestions for the recommendations of the TRC in workshops organized by UNIFEM and the TRC (Sarkin and Ackermann 2018, 499), the TRC made a comprehensive range of recommendations aimed at addressing the structural inequality against women and the strengthening of their status. These included “law reform, access to justice, the abolition of discriminatory customary law and practices, the building of institutional capacity and the establishment of educational programmes to counter attitudes and norms which lead to the oppression of women” (SLTRC 2004c, 168).

Some recommendations addressed the “social and legal factors that enable or perpetuate sexual violence” (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1289). The Commission imperatively recommended the legal age of marriage to be set to 18, and the enactment of legislation making the permission, authorization and assisting in the marriage of minors a criminal offence (SLTRC 2004c, 177). It also recommended enacting specific legislation to address domestic violence, facilitate the prosecution of offenders, and empower women to access protection orders (ibid. 169). Moreover, the discriminatory rules of procedure and evidence were advocated to be reformed “to make it easier for women to report cases of sexual and domestic violence” (Graybill 2011, 110). Another imperative recommendation was the launching of a government campaign “to end the practice under the customary law of compelling women and girls who have been raped to enter into marriage with the offender” (SLTRC 2004c, 170).

Further recommendations concerned the abolition of discriminatory legislation and practices. The Commission imperatively recommended the abolishment of “all aspects of customary law as well as practices which discriminate against women in the realm of inheritance, land ownership, marriage, divorce and the administration of estates” (ibid. 171), the harmonization of customary law to comply with international human rights standards (ibid. 170) and the “codification of customary law with special emphasis on the rights of women and children” (ibid. 137). The Commission found some elements of customary and Islamic Law to contradict basic human rights and thus called for all traditional rules and customs to be subject to the Constitution (ibid. 136). It also imperatively recommended the repeal of all statutory laws that discriminate against women, including “those provisions that discriminate against women in relation to marriage, the administration of estates, inheritance, and divorce and property ownership” (SLTRC 2004c, 171). To enable this, the Commission called for the repeal of the constitutional provisions 27(4)(d) and (e) “which permit discrimination against women in these areas and on the grounds of customary law” (ibid). It also proposed the creation of a new Constitution (ibid. 122).

The Commission regarded education, health, economic empowerment and political participation as key for the progressive development of women in Sierra Leone (ibid. 168). Therefore, it made several recommendations to address the structural inequality against women in these areas. It imperatively recommended enacting legislation requiring 30 percent of all candidates for public elections to be women and urged the government to work towards achieving 50/50 gender parity in the cabinet and political posts within the next ten years (ibid. 172). Concerning economic empowerment, the Commission recommended the establishment of micro-credit schemes for women ex-combatants, internally displaced women, war widows and female heads of households (ibid). To address the low literacy level of Sierra Leonean women, it recommended providing free and compulsory education to girls up senior secondary school (ibid. 173). As an imperative, the Commission called for the abolition of the prevalent practice of expelling pregnant girls from schools (ibid).

The final report also contained a specific chapter on reparations to address the victims' needs and to promote their rehabilitation. By acknowledging that women and girls were particularly vulnerable to suffering human rights violations, women who suffered sexual abuse and war widows were recommended to be prioritized in the reparations programs, together with children, amputees and war-wounded (SLTRC 2004d, 242f.). The recommendations with regard to women included the provision of free health care including free fistula surgery and free testing for HIV and other STDs including free treatment for victims of sexual violence (SLTRC 2004c, 193). The Commission also recommended free counselling and psychosocial support and advocated for the provision of trauma counselling services specifically for women (SLTRC 2004d, 258f.). Victims of sexual violence should further receive monthly pensions (SLTRC 2004c, 194). The Commission moreover recommended the provision of skills training programs and subsequent micro-credits or micro-projects for war widows and victims of sexual violence (SLTRC 2004d, 262f.). It also called for free education until the senior secondary level for victims of sexual violence and children of these victims (SLTRC 2004c, 194). In doing so, the Commission specifically recognized the importance of gender-specific reparations (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1289).

Several of these recommendations, in “addressing the long-term underlying causes of sexual violence and discrimination against women” (ibid. 1290) and targeting the structural and systematic inequality in Sierra Leone, clearly had transformative potential. In advocating legal, structural and social changes, the recommendations of the TRC created significant potential for the transformation of gender relations in the country (ibid). Through recommending symbolic and material reparations for female victims the TRC offered recognition of women as victims of physical, psychological and structural violence. By recommending legal and structural reforms in the areas of education, economy, and politics, the TRC created scope for greater representation of women within society. The recommendations also encompassed potential for gender-equitable redistribution by calling for “greater opportunities for women and girls to participate in education and socio-economic activities, for example through the provision of micro-finance and skills training” (ibid). Thus, the recommendations of the TRC held great potential to achieve gender equality in Sierra Leone.

In its process and outcomes, the TRC hence contained all three essential elements for attaining gender equality by offering representation, recognition and redistribution; particularly in the context of the recommendations, and thus possessed transformative potential. The most transformative potential for changing women's situation lies, however, in the outcomes of these recommendations, ergo the implemented reforms and reparations (Sarkin and Ackermann 2018, 515). However, the implementation was in the hands of the government. The TRC was not given a formal reparations mandate (Williams and Opdam 2017, 1286). Instead, it compelled the government to “faithfully and timeously implement the recommendations of the report that are directed to state bodies and encourage or facilitate the implementation of any recommendations that may be directed to others” (TRC Act 2000, §17). The following section will, therefore, review the measures the government has taken to implement the recommendations with regard to gender equality to subsequently examine the extent to which the transformative potential of the TRC has been realized.

4. Measures taken by the Government

One important accomplishment towards overcoming structural discrimination against women was the far-reaching legal reforms in 2007 and 2012. In 2007, the so-called ‘Gender Acts' were passed with the aim to implement the TRC recommendations “on gender equality in inheritance, consent in customary marriage and criminalization of domestic and sexual violence” (Oosterveld 2015, 129). The first of these Acts was the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act which harmonized customary laws for marriage. The Act enables the registration of customary marriages, sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18, unless the parents, a guardian, a magistrate, or a local government Chief gives consent (Akiyode- Afolabi 2013, 175) and requires the consent of both spouses. This aimed to change the previous practice under customary law which required only the consent of the bride's family and not the bride herself (Oosterveld 2015, 132). Moreover, it aimed to change discriminating practices in relation to divorce and property ownership. Under the Act, “women can acquire and dispose of property in their own right, and even in the event of divorce or separation, a woman does not have to return her dowry” (Beoku-Betts 2016, 663).


1 However, many women who have not been able to attend the hearings argued that “the TRC should have taken more deliberate steps beyond the hearing to reach more women and allow more victims' voices to be heard” (Akiyode-Afolabi 2013, 237); particularly in rural settings.

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A Window of Opportunity? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Impact on the Transformation of Gender Inequality in Sierra Leone
University of Bayreuth
Social and Political Processes in Africa and Beyond: Post-conflict Societies in Africa
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Transitional Justice, Übergangsjustiz, Post-Conflict, Nachkriegsgesellschaft, Gender, Geschlechtergerechtigkeit, Gleichberechtigung
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Elena Stuke (Author), 2019, A Window of Opportunity? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Impact on the Transformation of Gender Inequality in Sierra Leone, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/945308


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