From the margins of memory: seeking truth for women

UN Women, 23 March

For women, who have long been invisible during and after conflict, truth-seeking is an opportunity to have their experiences recognised and their roles understood, as survivors and agents of change.

In the past three decades approximately 30 truth commissions have been established, along with many national and international fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry. These have been used to draw a clear picture of past events, and identify how best to move forward on issues of accountability and redress. While there has been significant progress in recent years, many of these historically failed to include or respond to women’s experiences of conflict.

For individuals and societies affected by human rights violations, the right to truth can be life-changing. It gives them the right to know the fate of missing loved ones, have crimes acknowledged by the State, and know the identity of those responsible – and it can provide a gateway to healing, reconciliation and justice.

This was formally recognised in a resolution by the Commission on Human Rights in 2005, and it is remembered each year on 24 March: International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

The involvement of women in the design and operation of truth-seeking bodies is crucial. Where women have been represented, they have often ensured that mandates include specific measures that allow women to come forward and tell their stories.

Evidence shows that this can result in the public acknowledgment and condemnation of gender-based violations, while including women squarely in their country’s historical record, and ensuring that recommendations for redress fully reflect their needs. Recent gender-sensitive truth commission reports in Peru and Timor Leste for example, have revealed patterns of sexual and gender-based crimes, and the greater impact of socio-economic violations on women.

Other commissions have recommended gender-specific reparations and rehabilitation, and called for discriminatory laws and policies to be repealed, for example, those that block women’s access to land and inheritance.

UN Women supports various programmes to increase women’s access to justice, including through truth commissions and commissions of inquiry. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone, for example, is known for its early, active consultation with women’s groups, its placing of sexual violence front and centre on the Commssion’s agenda, and its special hearings and rules of procedure for female witnesses.

UN Women supported many of these initiatives, financially and through training, helping NGOs to document the experiences of women survivors, and Commission staff to respond appropriately to the specific needs of women. It has supported similar work in Peru, Rwanda, Morocco, and Timor Leste. Monitoring the recommendations of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions particularly on reparations, is a critical part of this process, which UN Women also supports on the ground.

Most recently, UN Women supported truth commission processes in the Solomon Islands and in Kenya. This included gender assessments, technical support for official staff and civil society, and outreach activities for women via radio programmes.

Similarly in the coming months as the truth commission in Cote d’Ivoire begins work, UN Women will partner with civil society to ensure that women are no longer consigned to the margins of memory, but are empowered as equal agents in the futures of transitioning countries.