Book Review: Gender and Transitional Justice

Gender and Transitional Justice
By Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Ruth Stanley (eds)
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, November 2011 $US95.00
Reviewed by LIA KENT, Australian National University, Australia

Over the past two decades, there has been increasing acknowledgement of the need for post-conflict peace-building interventions to pay more attention to the gender dimensions of conflict. Despite this, a vigorous, and growing, feminist literature continues to highlight the inability of trials, truth commissions and other transitional justice mechanisms to adequately take account of women’s diverse perspectives, priorities and experiences of conflict. Gender and Transitional Justice, edited by Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Ruth Stanley, provides strong addition to this literature. While concerned with the issue of women’s participation – or lack of participation – in transitional justice mechanisms, the collection also engages in a deeper critique of the ‘underlying theoretical, political and ideological premises’ of the transitional justice project (2). Many of the authors implicitly acknowledge the importance of moving beyond an exclusive focus on women’s experiences of sexual violence during times of conflict. They seek to acknowledge women’s multiple subjectivities, for instance their roles as survivors, resistance fighters, community leaders and negotiators, heads of households, and even perpetrators of violence.

The introductory chapter by Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Magdalena Zolkos provides an excellent overview of the ‘state of the art’ of feminist approaches to transitional justice. The authors identify that feminist critiques of transitional justice have tended to adopt two different approaches. One approach has emphasized the ‘under-visibility and under-privileging of women on the one hand, and the social-discursive constructions of femininity and masculinity on the other’ (7). Critiques adopting this approach have identified how women are excluded, or insufficiently included, within transitional justice frameworks. They have also highlighted how transitional justice discourse relies upon ‘masculine’ conceptions of law and accountability, which marginalise female experiences, stories and perspectives (7). By contrast, the second, more critical, feminist approach emphasises that ‘transitional justice is deeply, even intrinsically implicated in patriarchal and neo-liberal structures of governance’ (8). These authors are uneasy about the notion of ‘transition’ implied by transitional justice, which denotes a progression from ‘male-defined political violence’ to a ‘liberal democratic framework’ which may also be problematic for women (Bell and O’Rouke 2007: 23). They also points to the limits of feminist advocacy that is focused on ‘breaking the silence and invisibility of women.’ (8). Buckley-Zistel and Zolkos highlight the work of Katherine M. Franke, for instance, which displays wariness about the appropriation of women’s ‘stories, memories and experience’ by dominant liberal democratic institutions (Franke 2006: 823).

Without favoring one feminist approach over another, Buckley-Zistel and Zolkos demonstrate that incorporating gender into an analysis of transitional justice can serve as a powerful critical tool. For instance, it can help to demonstrate that transitional justice definitions of what constitutes a crime in need of rectification are themselves gendered. These definitions, by reducing violence to narrow understandings of ‘political violence’, tend to ignore the range of harms most often experienced by women, including violence in the home and socio-economic injuries. Feminist critiques can also help to show how the preoccupation of transitional justice mechanisms with women’s experiences of sexual violence gives insufficient attention to the diversity of women’s roles during times of conflict. The recognition of women as ‘perpetual victims’ may have long term implications in the post-conflict society by constructing women’s social positions and political identities as passive, inferior, vulnerable, and in need of (male) protection’ (10).

Buckley-Zistel and Zolkos also demonstrate that incorporating gender into an analysis of transitional justice can help to critique conceptions of ‘justice’ (9). It can help highlight, for instance, that legalistic approaches based on individual civil and political rights do not address violence that is committed within the home, nor does it attend to the structural violence that underlies conflict and is manifested in women’s exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination. A gender analysis can also destabilise the sharp delineation between ‘before’ and ‘after’ war or conflict that is assumed by transitional justice, by showing that for many women violence continues into the present in a variety of forms. The key themes raised in the introduction help to highlight the need for transitional  justice mechanisms to examine violence within private as well as public sphere, violence that takes place in peacetime as well as in war, and experiences of structural (as well as direct) violence.

Several chapters within the collection offer insightful and fresh contributions to transitional justice debates. Given my personal interest in women’s position in post-conflict East Timor, I found the chapters in Part Two, entitled ‘Transitional Justice and Social Change’ and Part Three, on ‘The Potential and Limits of Agency’, particularly illuminating. Part Two examines the limits of transitional justice in contributing to wider social transformation after violence. In different ways, the chapters in this section unsettle the narrative of ‘transition’ that underpins transitional justice discourse and practice by examining what happens after transitional justice mechanisms complete their work. For instance, Chapter 4, by Romi Sigsworth and Nahla Valji, examines ongoing violence against women in ‘peacetime’ South Africa. The authors show that, due to their limited definition of ‘violation’, ‘political’ and ‘transition’, transitional justice mechanisms have been unable to address the pre-conflict power relations that underpin violence against women. They also suggest that a key reason for the continued subordination of women in South Africa, and for the high rates of violence against women, is that the ‘violent militarised masculinities’ produced during the conflict remain entrenched (122). Catherine O’Rouke’s chapter focuses on how the legal frame of analysis adopted by transitional justice does not permit  reflection on the long term political consequences of transitional justice. Yet, this reflection is important, she suggests, because transitional justice processes influence how citizens become incorporated into the political community of post-conflict and post-authoritarian states’ (137). Focusing on the cases of Chile and Colombia, she demonstrates that the selective validation of the political activities of men and women by transitional justice mechanisms has helped to shape the terms of citizenship (137). She argues that if transitional justice mechanisms did more to value women’s multiple political subjectivities (rather than recognising them principally as ‘victims’ or ‘mothers’) this might help to counter the ‘retreat of women from public life’ that so often takes place in times of transition (156).

The illuminating case studies in this collection cover a wide range of geographic contexts, and will be of interest to both academics and practitioners. The collection nonetheless also demonstrates that much work remains to be done to translate a gender analysis of transitional justice into practical reforms that benefit women.


C. Bell and C. O’Rouke (2007). ‘Does Feminism need a Theory of Transitional Justice? An Introductory Essay’, International Journal of Transitional Justice 1 (1): 23-44.

K. M. Franke (2006) ‘Gendered Subject of Transitional Justice’, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 15, 813-28.