Women and dealing with the past

17 Sep 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 18 Sep 2015

Some of the Legacy Gender Integration Group at Tuesday's event
Some of the Legacy Gender Integration Group at Tuesday's event

A report released this week says we need to better provide for female victims in order to address the legacy of conflict. Scope looks at its suggestions.

Has the peace process sidelined women? Could be progress much better if the needs of female victims received a tailored approach?

The answer is yes to both, according to the Legacy Gender Integration Group, a collection of people who have worked with victims or on legacy issues and who have compiled a report they hope will inform implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, or whatever other structures are eventually put in place in their stead.

Gender Principles for Dealing with the Legacy of the Past was released on Tuesday and the launch itself, in the Long Gallery at Stormont, was a spicy affair – with various victims airing strong disagreements, and a general feeling at anger at being left behind in the peace process.

While that meant that most of the discussion was taken up by discussion of general problems about the lack of engagement with and empowerment of victims, rather than the contents of the report, it did highlight the real problems the report attempts to take on.

The paper illustrates its recommendations with a couple of case studies, both of which paint bleak pictures of a disconnection established before each of the outlined murders occurs, and which then immediately comes into sharp focus and is never addressed.

The Legacy Gender Integration Group asserts that a substantial part of the failure experienced by the two women whose stories are told is rooted in investigations at the time effectively ignoring the needs and circumstances of women – and that these failures stubborn persist to this day through previous and ongoing legacy schemes, and are in fact woven into the fabric of all our efforts to try and ease the suffering caused by and increase understanding of the Troubles.


The ten recommendations from the report are as follows:

Gender Integration – it states “a gendered lens must be applied holistically throughout the process”, an awkward expression, but the point is better made with more exposition.

“There are clear gender patterns to victimhood and survival. The vast majority of those killed in the conflict were men. The majority of surviving family members are women. Women are a significant presence in victims’ organisations in providing and receiving services. Moreover, one’s experience of conflict and one’s conflict legacy needs are heavily shaped by gender. Victimhood is gendered, as are coping strategies.”

Process Orientation – victimhood and dealing with the past are continual processes, rather than something that can be dealt with at a specific moment, and all approaches must respect this.

Empowerment, Participation, Ownership and Control – this was the area must fully discussed at the launch. It is clear that many victims feel utterly disenfranchised, especially women.

Inclusivity: Be inclusive and accommodate complexity – both being inclusive and not trying to simplify people’s personal grief are both obviously desirable, but the report makes the point they are mutually indivisible.

“Victimhood and survival are highly personal, complex, and gendered experiences. Hierarchies of victimhood fail to account for this complexity. They instead encourage narrow and prescribed accounts and categories of harm. Recognizing diverse, shifting, multiple and gendered forms of harm, victimhood and survival, is essential to the construction of an inclusive and gender-sensitive process to deal with the past.”

Addressing Structural Obstacles – there are multiple material obstacles in the path of victims (often compounded in the case of women) such as poverty, and direct and practical support is required to aid those searching for answers.

Holistic Approach – this point effectively ties together the second and fourth recommendations: that victimhood is a process, rather than a switch than can be turned on or off, and individuals will have distinct and complicated needs. Therefore the model for helping them needs to address both of these simultaneously, and victims need a suite of tailored support services to help them through their search for answers.

Giving Voice and Being Heard: Honour individual stories – this sounds like a re-tread of previous recommendations, but isn’t, and the point being made is that any investigations that focus simply on the chronological facts of the day of a given death are inadequate, and proper redress requires proper context.

“This type of testimony can jar, however, with fuller, richer and broader accounts of victims and survivors seeking to tell their stories and to be heard and that can provide important documentation of the facts about and impact of harms. If a gendered lens is not incorporated in how a story is gathered it will impact the rest of how a case is addressed. Official processes must be ready to hear, to honour and to document, in their diversity and complexity, the stories of victims and survivors. Done properly, such processes can counter broader dynamics that result in silencing women and victims.”

Macro Analysis: Be attentive to the bigger picture – that, in addition to properly “honouring” individuals’ stories, these accounts should only be tied together with full recourse to the wider dynamics and context both of the Troubles and also people’s experiences since 1998.

Equality and Diversity: Value gender expertise and lived experience – that diversity amongst agents of any legacy institution is not just desirable but necessary.

Local and Global Learning: Craft bottom-up local responses that draw on international good practice – self explanatory.

Take-home lessons

What is perhaps most striking about the report is that many of the recommendations would be entirely sensible points even if any mention of gender was removed.

This points to failures in victim services generally, but does not diminish the gender-based points highlighted by the Legacy Gender Integration Group – quite the opposite.

The fact that each of these recommendations also make sense with a gendered lens points to the truly fundamental failures in our approach to the legacy of the conflict when it comes to women.

The fourth recommendation, on inclusivity, shows this better than most. Since Good Friday, many victims have complained about being left behind, including many men, but the key point is that unless the structures are set up to allow for all individual experiences they will fail – and if they do not take heed of any differing needs of women, they will not be set up to allow for individual experiences.

All this tallies with the case studies outlined above – where the mis-steps were basic and consistent.

Northern Ireland is a long way from finding a satisfactory method of picking through the wreckage of the Troubles. Right now it seems no-one is more frustrated than the victims, and the only possible conclusion is that attempts until this time to address the past have been dismal failures.

We must do much better.

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