Making Sure Women Have a Seat at the Table in Transitional Societies

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used her speech at the International Women of Courage Awards to call for women to be included in the processes of transition underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East.  According to Secretary Clinton, despite the fact that women played a prominent role in recent popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, no women were invited to “join in drafting constitutional amendments for the transition to democracy [in Egypt].”  Clinton rightly expressed her concerns with this state of affairs, pointing out both that “women . . . deserve to be at that table making those choices that will affect their lives and the lives of their daughters and theirs sons” and that “[n]o government can succeed if it excludes half of its people from important decisions.” 

The experiences of women in abusive societies and the roles and rights of women in times of transition are topics of considerable interest for transitional justice scholars.  Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Ruth Rubio Marin, Christine Bell, and Catherine O’Rourke deserve particular credit for pressing these issues in recent articles and collected editions.  The central messages of their important scholarship are: 1) that women’s experiences as victims are unique both because women are more frequently subjected to sexual violence and because women often bear much of the economic and social burdens of family survival; 2) that women are uniquely vulnerable during and after transition and are at risk of remaining victims of oppression and targeted violence even as the rest of society is liberalized; 3) that democratic commitments core to most transitional movements entitle women to a “seat at the table” during transition; and 4) that by including women in transitional and transitional justice processes, transitioning societies will be in a better position to achieve lasting peace while making good on their core commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  While hard to argue, these claims on justice have yet to gain much traction in actual transitions.  Secretary Clinton’s comments are therefore welcome and well-timed.

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