Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Rethinking Representations of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Rethinking Representations of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: A Case Study of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Liberian Civil War, which started as a guerrilla reaction to the autocratic presidency of Samuel Doe and escalated into a prolonged multi-faction conflict, lasted fourteen years between 1989 and 2003, during which period as many as 250,000 people were killed and over one million displaced. (2) The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was subsequently established to report on gross human rights abuses in the conflict. In addition to the TRC's Consolidated Final Report (CFR), there were also collaborative reports from the Benetech Human Rights Program and the Advocates for Human Rights. (3) Particular attention was given to the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence in the war. The Commission contended that all wartime factions 'violated, degraded, abused and denigrated, committed sexual and gender-based violence against women including rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages, and other dehumanizing forms of violations' (TRC, 2009, Vol 2, 17). However, the Commission's definition of what constituted sexual and gender-based violence, and who was included and excluded in analysis of abuse, warrants further consideration. The conflation of 'women' with 'gender' in declarations such as the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) is reflective of widely accepted narrow understandings of gender violence. Although I use the term 'gender-based violence' here as this is the term used by the TRC, we can argue that 'gender-based violence' should be avoided altogether, as it suggests that forms of violence exist which are removed from processes of gender/sexual positioning. Some critics have adopted the term 'gender violence' on the premise that all violence is gender-based and with the aim of taking a broader view on what gender violence encompasses (Leach and Humphreys, 107). By examining differences within gender categories we can shed light on patterns of social behaviour between them, but also critique the binary gender categories which dominate rights-based discourses in development (Connell, 2002:2).

Focusing on forced marriage or the 'bush wife phenomenon' as a category of abuse, this paper identifies a number of flaws in the TRC's analysis of wartime abuses and its representation of sexual and gender-based violence. Furthermore, influenced by Foucauldian understandings of power relations, I examine the way in which dominant humanitarian discourses can be seen to have sanctioned discussion of certain types of sexual and gender-based violence and silenced others. James Faubion (1994) has suggested that two guiding principles have directed Foucault's analysis of power: firstly the productivity of power, which here can be applied to the way in which scholarly conceptions of gender-based violence have influenced government policy and humanitarian action, and secondly the constitution of subjectivity through power relations, relating both to the impact of power relations as helping to form self-awareness and identities, teach and mould conduct, and the potential to silence or repress particular forms of knowledge or discourse. This complex interpretation of power offers not merely a counterbalance of power and resistance, but power as a way of adapting and changing the conduct and attitudes of an individual or population through its productive ability to develop or create certain types of knowledge or social hierarchy (O'Farrell, 2005:99). In particular, I focus on Foucault's discussion of silence as an essential part of discourse, and the notion that silence is not a oppositional space or the limit of discourse but rather 'the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within overall strategies' (Foucault, cited in Jaworski and Coupland, 1999:518).

Recent critiques of international policy and prosecutions of gender crimes have questioned the complexity of victimhood presented through trials, policy and the apparatus of transitional justice. …

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