AJCR | 2009/2

Truth seeking and gender

The Liberian experience

By  30 Oct 2009

Conflict is highly gendered, that much we know. That men and women experience conflict differently and that women’s experience of the conflict is shaped by the status of women in the country prior to the conflict, we also know. However, the question remains: how is truth gendered and how does attention to gender influence truth-seeking in a post-conflict situation?

Following Liberia’s intensely violent conflict that ravaged the country for 14 years, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in Accra, Ghana, in 2003 made provision for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This was an attempt by the negotiators to include an accountability mechanism acceptable to all warring factions. The peace talks had already witnessed thirteen stalled attempts to end the conflict. It is important to note here that Liberian women played a critical role in bringing the warring factions to the negotiation table, as well as in applying pressure during the process for the agreement to be signed. But despite their activism women were nonetheless excluded from the formal peace talks and only a select few participated as observers.

Against this background, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) was appointed in 2003 and it in turn created a Commission to begin the process of truth seeking. However, this first Commission did not stand up to public scrutiny for a variety of reasons, not least because there had been no guiding Act or policy to steer its development. The TRC was therefore reconstituted through an official Act passed in June 2005 and was tasked with investigating ‘gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law as well as abuses that occurred, including massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes’ perpetrated between 1979 and 2003 (TRC Act, 2005).1 The newly constituted TRC was mandated to investigate the causes, nature, patterns and impact of human rights violations, as well as identify the key antecedents to the crisis by examining Liberia’s history prior to the conflict. The Liberian Commission finally began its operations in 2006 and was composed of nine national Commissioners under the chair of Jerome Verdier, a former human rights and civil society activist.

The transitional government, the TRC and finally the new administration under Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected the first female African president in November 2005, were ushered in through a tense and troubled process with real fears of the conflict being re-ignited. This placed a heavy burden on the truth-telling process and the TRC came under intense scrutiny from all stakeholders and interested parties. Understandably, the most war-affected people were fearful of further conflict and consequently were enthusiastic advocates for peace at all costs. However, many perceived the Commission to be a creation for the international community to pretend that something was being done while perpetrators walked free. As a result, many suggested the TRC was in effect a blanket amnesty for the perpetrators of the violence. Conversely, some viewed impunity as such a strong feature of Liberian history, extending back to the arrival of the settlers, that prosecution for war crimes could be the only way to end the cycles of violence. Reflecting these divisions, Liberian civil society debated on the radio, television and in other public fora what was the most necessary transitional justice initiatives to ensure peace and stability.

Against this backdrop, the TRC’s Commissioners tried to find ways to implement their mandate and satisfy expectations.

From the outset, the Commission adopted a fiercely independent position and decried international ‘interference’ in its operations. Nonetheless, an international technical advisory committee (ITAC) was established as a forum to consult with international ‘experts’. The Commissioners’ struggle with interpreting the Commission’s very broad mandate was compounded by a number of internal divisions that resulted in the formation of uneasy alliances within the body. The media capitalised on these splits and repeatedly reported the internal squabbles and sometimes public confrontations. This, in turn, led some Commissioners to publicly distance themselves from positions taken by other TRC Commissioners in the media. So, even though the TRC was committed to fulfilling its mandate, issues were often overshadowed by other more melodramatic events.

Liberia’s most recent 14-year brutal conflict embroiled the entire West African sub-region and all factions including those employed as peacekeepers were involved in violating and exploiting women. Many women also chose to become combatants or to provide auxiliary support but were still subject to sexual abuse from male combatants, becoming their ‘bush wives’ or performing sexual favours to ensure their survival. As noted earlier, women also became involved in peace work and were instrumental in bringing the warring factions to the peace table in 2003. However, despite Liberian women’s significant involvement during the conflict, they were marginalised during the negotiation process, and their concerns over the terms of the transition remained on the fringes. This view from the field is based on my own personal experience as the gender advisor to the Liberian TRC in 2008 and 2009. I will look at how the Commission dealt with Liberia’s gendered past and how their interpretation of gender impacted on attempts at truth seeking.

Interpreting Gender

When the Liberian TRC launched its operations in June 2006, each of the nine Commissioners was allotted a variety of thematic, programmatic and county-specific oversight roles. Drawing from the dictates of their mandate and the particular context of the conflict, Commissioners identified several thematic areas of focus – including children, economic crimes and gender. The gender focus area was formed in response to provisions in the TRC Act which were seen as ‘gender-sensitive’. Not only did the Act make clear provision for the inclusion of women as Commissioners, it also made nine provisions for dealing with gender issues. However, in every articulation the concept of gender was linked explicitly to women and children. For example:

Article IV Section 4(e): The objectives/purpose of the Commission shall be to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation by…Adopting specific mechanisms and procedures to address the experiences of women, children and vulnerable groups, paying particular attention to gender-based violations, as well as to the issue of child soldiers2

Article VI Section 24: The TRC shall consider and be sensitive to issues of human rights violations, gender and gender-based violence… [so] that gender mainstreaming characterizes its work, operations and functions, thus ensuring that women are fully represented and staffed at all levels of the TRC and that special mechanisms are employed to handle women and children victims and perpetrators…

Article VII Section 26 (f): Its functions and powers shall include…Helping restore the human dignity…, giving special attention to the issues of sexual and gender-based violence and particularly to the experiences of children and women during armed conflicts in Liberia…

This articulation of gender in the TRC Act identified a broad term which inferred a commitment and sensitivity to women’s rights and needs, along with the rights and needs of children. While the mandate did provide a strong impetus to the TRC to reach out to women and encourage their participation, it was not initially interpreted to go beyond a women and children’s affairs portfolio and was not linked to gender equality as the overarching goal. Gender thus developed into work with women or for women: a gender committee was established to design and undertake projects that focused exclusively on engaging women in the TRC process; and the mainstreaming of women, women’s experiences, and women’s roles in other core functions of the TRC focused primarily on women as victims, particularly of sexual violence. But neglecting gender as an analytical tool meant overlooking the reasons why women were targeted for particular violations and how notions of masculinity and femininity had shaped the way that the women and men had behaved during the conflict. As such the Commission failed to provide deeper understanding as to why the violations against women and girls spanned age groups from babies to grandmothers over 80 years old, and what underpinned the waiver of cultural checks that made such and other behaviours taboo in peacetime.

The Gender Committee and Gender Policy

The TRC’s Gender Committee was first established in late 2006, as the TRC was preparing to undertake an outreach programme targeted at Liberian women. Prior to the constitution of the Committee, work on gender had been led principally by individual Commissioners, particularly former journalist, Massa Washington. In part, because funding had not been secured for the TRC’s full operations during its preparatory period, the TRC began without a fully staffed or functional Secretariat. Without the oversight of an Executive Secretary or Programme Director, early programmes advanced independently of one another. This initial autonomy of programming, coupled with the fierce independence of personalities involved created the dynamics through which gender programming was carried out in the TRC. Gender programmes were implemented with exclusive focus on the ‘women’ issue and efforts centred on women’s involvement in the statement-taking and public hearing processes.

The Gender Committee was only understood to be advising and assisting the TRC in its work specifically targeting women. The Committee was therefore constituted by organisations that had a specific mandate or expertise in working with women and female survivors of sexual violence. These included UNIFEM, the Women’s NGO Secretariat, the Liberian Women Media Action Committee, Voice of the Voiceless and the International Centre for Transitional Justice’s (ICTJ) gender focal person amongst others. The Committee did not engage with the TRC’s other core operations and made no attempt to mainstream gender into the Commission’s operations. Instead, it was convened on an ad hoc basis to support outreach efforts directed at women, including workshops to encourage traditional women leaders and male relatives to support female participation in the TRC. Once the Commission was underway, thematic public hearings on the role of women during the conflict were held and a national consultation with women on the TRC recommendations was organised. These projects largely had independent funding, separate from the TRC’s principal budget lines, and were not coordinated with other TRC units. In addition to these women-focused projects, the Gender Committee helped the TRC to craft a gender policy.

The gender policy emphasised the references made to gender in the TRC Act, stressing that a common understanding of gender equality and equity was critical to a thorough investigation into the truth about Liberia’s past. It also encouraged working towards transforming traditional gender biases and roles and laid out a detailed plan with clear recommendations. It strongly recommended that a gender expert be employed immediately to implement the plan. It was also suggested the plan should be reviewed periodically by the Gender Committee. Unfortunately, this comprehensive policy and plan, which would have gone a long way to ensuring that the women-specific activities were tied to an overall gender equality strategy, were delayed. The gender policy itself took months to be finalised and my position of gender advisor was not put in place until the final year of the TRC’s operations. This was a result of delays over funding and difficulties with finding someone with the necessary expertise who was available for the required length of time. By the time of my recruitment in early 2008, most of the women-centred activities had been rolled out with the assistance of a local gender officer.

During my time as gender advisor, the Gender Committee was revitalised and efforts were made to bring in a gender-equality component to the work of the Commission. I lobbied the Commissioners to integrate gender into the TRC final report and persuaded them that there was more to the women question that just women. The Commissioners were quick to understand the need to shift towards this incorporation so that when the report writing team was being constituted, they included me in the process.

Liberian Women in Core TRC Programming

As the Commission undertook its work and the Gender Committee focused on enabling women’s participation in the process, women were also being engaged in the TRC’s core operations: statement-taking, public hearings, and research and investigation. Although the TRC’s activities suffered from a variety of challenges, and have received widespread criticism both locally and internationally, they succeeded in encouraging more female participation than many truth commissions in the past. Overall, the figures for women’s participation in statement-taking are relatively high. Of the total 18 000 statements collected by September 2008, 51 percent came from women. Women also widely participated in the TRC’s public hearings. Elsewhere in the world, women giving testimony before truth commissions were often reluctant to speak about their own experiences and came forward only to recount experiences of family members, particularly male family members. Women in Liberia, however, seemed more willing to talk about themselves, perhaps due to better preparation and pre-hearing support. Meanwhile, the Inquiry Unit established ‘the role of women and children’ as one of its main thematic areas for investigation and research. Some research was carried out by staff members and a concerted effort was made by the unit to follow up on gross human rights violations involving women and children.

The interpretation of ‘gender’ as participation and inclusion of women and children imposed a tendency to focus on victimhood, especially sexual and physical violations. Although there was recognition of women as combatants and supporters of the war, these identities were seldom explored and the full spectrum of women’s involvement and their multiple identities did not fully emerge from the hearings. It also did not bring into focus any underlying androcentric cultural norms or patriarchal ideologies that may have worked together to create the gender dynamics that viciously played themselves out in the conflict. Had the TRC a wider interpretation of gender, they might have included many more ‘why’ questions in the hearings and tried to dig deeper into understanding exactly what men and women believed about their societal roles and positions which led them to behave in particular ways. For example, eight percent of rapes reported were committed on men but this was not explored.

The late appointment of a gender advisor, coupled with the many logistical and operational challenges of the TRC and its perceived need to retain ownership and control of the process made it extremely difficult for external support and advice to be harnessed. Time and funding constraints resulted in the Gender Committee often rubber-stamping activities rather than interrogating them, and any input that may have helped shift the approach to include an overall gender equality goal diminished over time.

Truth and Gender

After a difficult start, which was compounded by logistical and operational challenges, the Liberian TRC must be commended for their achievements in ensuring the participation and inclusion of women at every level of operation and execution of its mandate. This was a profound shift towards confronting the gender disparities that plague Liberian society. However, the first report issued by the TRC in December 2008 was largely gender-blind and adopted a strong legalistic approach in its description of its work. Gender featured ineffectively and women were portrayed primarily as victims of sexual violence. This report essentially reflected the TRC process, during which most accounts of the conflict perpetuated this stereotype.

The TRC Commissioner tasked with the gender oversight and I later realised that this needed to change and we encouraged civil society groups to conduct dialogues with women throughout the country – around participating in transitional justice and peace building processes, beginning the move away from the focus on sexual violence. A series of regional dialogues were convened around the country to engage over 600 women in dialogues about the TRC process, reparations and other transitional justice processes. Careful analysis and deeper discussions with women revealed that women were less concerned with redress and reparations for sexual violence, but were rather concerned with the loss of their livelihoods and the day to day struggle they were currently facing including lack of safe water, housing, health care and education. A significant outcome of this outreach was a comprehensive set of recommendations to address the specific needs of women and to advance gender equality in Liberia. These and other recommendations elicited throughout the gender programming of the TRC were collated and included in the TRC final report released in July 2009.


Conceptual confusions around gender and the conflation of gender with women can ultimately result in a perpetuation of stereotypical notions of women, leaving harmful practices against both women and men unchallenged by transitional justice mechanisms. This in turn, impedes the ability of these initiatives to promote substantive gender equality. The interpretation of gender in Liberia’s Truth Commission’s mandate as solely promoting women’s participation was done at a cost. At the practical level, even though space was created for women to participate, there has not been a significant change in social thinking, attitudes or behaviour. In the Liberian context, the best one can hope for now is that the recommendations that women made through the truth-seeking process will work towards significant reform in the months and years to come.


  1. The TRC’s full mandate and report can be accessed at the official website <>.
  2. The full mandate is available at <>.
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