Liberia, a war-torn country for much of the 1990s, initiated several post-conflict peacebuilding programmes with the hope of building sustainable peace. But a study of the Palava Hut Program as a transitional justice mechanism showed that such efforts can be thwarted by the reduction of women to victims of war. The opportunity to rebuild gender relations damaged during wars can be missed in the process. Besides rethinking the link between women and victimhood, women’s inclusion in peacebuilding programmes based on lived experiences can help to equalize men and women in the peacebuilding process, argues Christo Gorpudolo.
Gender is one of the most damaged relationships during war. War and masculinity re-establishes gender hierarchies, and even after the end of wars such oppressive gender relationships persist. Several post-conflict peacebuilding efforts have been initiated in Liberia following two civil wars that occurred between 1989 and 2003. Most notable amongst these peacebuilding efforts have been the development of document called ‘A Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peacebuilding and Reconciliation and the National Palava Hut Program. These efforts are major achievements that have set the pace for peacebuilding in the country. Yet, as important as these peacebuilding efforts seem, how gender is viewed and incorporated within the country’s transitional peacebuilding programmes remains problematic for efforts to build sustainable peace.
Solhjell and Sayndee (2016) assert that Liberia has dominate-subservient gender power relations, which limits the participation of the female gender in public discourses and also affects their bodily integrity by limiting their movement from one social class to the other, especially in public decision-making processes (Solhjell and Sayndee 2016: 12). These general societal perspectives and/or biases of gender roles in Liberia have been key sources for policies informing the transitional justice process.
Gender can be viewed as a social institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals, orders the social processes of everyday life, and is built into the major social organizations of society such as the economy, ideology, the family and politics. It is an entity in and of itself (Lorber 1996). In the case of Liberia’s peacebuilding efforts, gender is constructed mostly in terms of women’s numerical inclusion in post-conflict peacebuilding activities. This is based on the generally accepted notion that women form a large portion of those victimized in the civil wars. Therefore, policy makers assume that they should be integrated into the Palava Hut talks numerically to share their stories of survival and receive apologies for the crimes committed against them. Although this assertion could be true, viewing women’s participation based on the lens of victimhood also poses a danger.
As part of my Master’s research at the ISS, in 2019 I conducted a case study of Liberia’s National Palava Hut Program as a transitional justice mechanism. Using Scriven’s argumentation analysis, I examined national policies that included the Palava Hut Program documents, related program evaluations and implementation reports, and the Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peacebuilding and Reconciliation. I specifically looked at issues of gender, including women’s representation in such policies. I found that victims in the studied documents generally referred to women and children. Based on this perception of women and children as victims, the documents advised that women should form part of the Palava Hut Talks to protect their rights that had been violated during the civil war and to address the ‘dishonour’ brought against them by the civil wars.
As important as those statements might sound, this fails to recognize the key role women played in ending direct violence in Liberia. Thus, women should be incorporated into the Palava Hut Program as significant stakeholders in Liberia’s peacebuilding process, not as victims. Viewing women as victims and men as perpetrators within the peacebuilding process can prevent the full realization of sustainable peace through peacebuilding efforts and hinders the possibility for the transitional era to be used as an opportunity to redefine existing gender relations. According to scholars like Catherine O’Rourke (2013), the extreme social disruption caused by political violence that a transitional justice era seeks to address can within the transitional era allow for some loosening of gender norms and create space for women to take up atypical gender roles. This can help reshape gender relations.
A way of approaching peacebuilding in Liberia in order to achieve a gender-just peacebuilding process would be to incorporate both men and women in the peacebuilding process based on their lived experiences—as equals and not necessarily according to a victim-perpetrator dichotomy. Considering lived experiences may help shift the focus of the Palava Hut Program past victims and perpetrators, thereby creating a deeper understanding of the conflict. This would also provide an opportunity to change gender-damaged relationships that persist in post-conflict societies, particularly Liberia.
Lorber, J. (1996) ‘Beyond the Binaries: Depolarizing the Categories of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender’, Socological Inquiry 66(2): 143-160.
O’Rourke, C. (2013) Gender Politics in Transitional Justice. Routledge.
Solhjell, R. and T.D. Sayndee (2016) ‘Gender-Based Violence and Access to Justice: Grand Bassa County, Liberia’
About the authors:
Christo Z. Gorpudolo is a graduate of Development Studies, Social Justice Perspectives (SJP) from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
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