The past year we have been able to listen to sixty scholars, activists, performers, artists and curators from around the world in three conferences held in London, Lima and Cape Town. About twenty different country contexts were discussed, from Kurdistan to Namibia and Peru, and a wide range of commemorative practices and activisms. The purpose of this interdisciplinary approach was to gauge the variety of perspectives on gender justice and memorial practices.  As such, it was asked, in all those different contexts, where are the women? how are they represented? and what does that do for the present and future of gender justice in that particular context?

We specifically focussed on symbolic reparations, commemorative practices and arts, in light of the paucity of criminal accountability for gendered violations of human rights, including sexual slavery, sexual violence and forced sterilization, as well as the limited reach of economic reparations. Commemoration of atrocities committed and harms done can work as symbolic reparation in the sense that it can provide recognition, visibility, and restore dignity, possibly remove stigma, and offer opportunity for individual and collective mourning. But, as scholars in the network have repeatedly shown, the reach of commemorative practices of gendered harms is often limited.  They may be used to assist nationalist goals as in Iraqi Kurdistan (Choman Hardi) or Namibia (Alex Stonehouse), serve as a quick and easy silencing of survivors and family member groups, as in Mexico (Robin Greely and Michael Orwicz), or be used to overlook histories of slavery as in Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope (June Bam Hutchison), or the gendered and sexual aspects of slavery, as in Mauritius (Richard Chelin). Such commemorative practices that have not taken gender into account, as perspective or reality, tend to reproduce harmful stereotypes of heroic (and violent!) men and weak and vulnerable women, or at best, as mothers. Such portrayals ultimately do more harm than good in terms of post conflict transformative gender justice, which aims to not repair what is broken but transform what was wrong in the first place. Gendered stereotypes such as sexualised vulnerable women or caring mothers versus heroic militarised men subverts attempts to foster sustainable peace or gender equality, as Sabine Marshall also noted in her presentation on commemorating women in South Africa.

Peru was a main focus of several participants, providing a rich case study considering the extent of activity and resistance in terms of commemoration, both from civil society as well as from the state. The country is currently experiencing heated debates about the politics of memory about the war between Shining Path and counterinsurgency, as well as a feminist resurgence protesting the escalating violence against women in their homes. Curatorial practices in Peru’s memory museums were critically unpacked by various scholars (Olga González, Natalia Iguiñiz, Gabriela Eguren, Enrique La Cruz, Iris Jave, Jelke Boesten), finding both gendered stereotypes as well as representations that unsettle gendered norms and inequalities, including initiatives that recognise the roles of and harms done to the LGTBQI community.

Several scholars looking at Colombia, a country that is currently researching and building its memory museums just now, presented hopeful visions of more inclusive histories and practices (Maria Emma Wills, Nancy Prada, Diana Garcia). Clearly, when competent teams of people purposefully include a gender perspective and aim for a diversity of perspectives, rather than a homogenous narrative of the past, transformative curations are possible. We will have to wait and see what the effects of these efforts will be on wider society.

Sometimes, states nominally commemorate, but fail to be inclusive, or sufficiently sensitive, about rape victims and their children, as in Northern Uganda (Sarah Kihika Kasande), resulting in communities creating their own commemorative practices. This happens in Uganda, in Peru -especially in the high Andes (Juana Carrión, Gumercinda Reynaga)-, as well as in Sierra Leone (Courtney Cole). Such initiatives are not always complementary, but groups of survivors and/or family members may make persistent demands on the state to recognise victims and harms done. Tensions between the state and civil society groups often emerge if the state refuses to recognise its own role in political violence, and, unfortunately, because of deep disregard (or simple disinterest) for survivors of mass atrocity.

And so we find civil society groups fighting for recognition and visibility. Jackson Odong highlighted the plight of male victims of sexual violence in Uganda, Ester Muinjangue, noted the quest for reparations for the descendants of Herero genocide in Namibia and Marjorie Jobson revealed the ongoing marginalisation the widows of the miners shot down at Marikana, South Africa. The theme of ongoing marginalisation was revealed by Shastry Njeru in his discussion of rape survivors and their children in Zimbabwe, Sheena Magenya regarding the plight of Kenyans of Somali descent, and Jade Gibson observations on children who survive the femicide of their mothers. All these cases represent structural -and often intersecting of race, class, gender, and ethnicity- violences against specific groups, and their invisibility not only adds insult to injury, but encourages a continuum of violence. Recognition would allow survivors to claim the reparations and access to services they deserve as citizens, and the dignity of knowing that future generations cannot be violated and killed with impunity.

But, as other participants to the three conferences showed, if the state does not provide satisfactory commemoration there are also other ways of commemorating. A range of scholars presented and/or analysed a series of bottom-up cultural interventions -theatre, performance, literature, poetry, sculpture, and visual arts- that successfully or less successfully represent or misrepresent women, LGTBQI, gendered harms, and other gendered elements of conflict and survival (Lucia Bastos on Brazil, Kara Blackmore and Manca Bajec on Bosnia, Natalia Iquiñiz on Peru, Choman Hardi on Iraqi Kurdistan, Alexandra Hibbett on Peru, Yvette Hutchison on South Africa, Michele LeBaron on Ireland, Liliana Mendoza on Colombia, Nayanika Mookherjee on Bangaldesh, Mshai Mwangola on Kenya, Aweno Okech on South Africa, Margarita Palacios on Chile, Ines Ruiz Alvarado on Peru, Margarita Saona on Colombia and Peru, Helen Scanlon on South Africa, and Katherine Valenzuela and Giuliana Vidarte both on Peru). These accounts witness a tremendous wealth of arts that can perform the long term and ever-present function of unsettling and debating audiences’ ideas and perspectives, highlighting, raising awareness, finding ways to make people question their ideas of the past and the present, and thereby, providing an opening to a different future.

Not surprisingly perhaps, we found a range of groups and arts that combine memory and arts in their contemporary activism for better research methodologies (Nicola Palmer), to demand transformation in South Africa’s higher education institutions (Helen Scanlon on university protests, Shanel Johannes on water shortage), and to protest contemporary gender violence in Peru (Bernedo, Boesten, Iguiniz, Saona). Close collaboration between artists and activists provides for innovative and audience-drawing campaigns, but art can also draw activism by being in itself controversial, as Helen Scanlon argued about a modern sculpture of Saartje Baartman located in the library of the University of Cape Town.

Last but not least, several scholars reflected on the use of the strategic litigation as a form of symbolic reparation (Christina Alai on Kenya, Jo-Marie Burt on Guatemala, Rashida Manjoo more generally), or arts as evidence in the court room (Julissa Mantilla). Angela Ndinga Sellstrom asked what amnesty clauses in peace accords means for actors, and how such amnesties may affect the sense of accountability and levels of sexual violence post conflict among demobilised troops. These presentations indicated the tremendous potential of the law in seeking transformative gender justice, and the necessary interplay between reparation and criminal justice. Even if not all individual victims of conflict-related sexual violence will receive justice nor will all perpetrators be held accountable, the symbolic value of emblematic judicial cases are critical if we want to further the project of transformative gender justice.

Ayanda Nxusani ended the second conference, in Cape Town, by asking how and for whom we remember: whose trauma are we remembering and what is the second generation to do with this? How does one respect and keep alive the memories of the traumatised, without appropriating that trauma? How does one heal over the generations? Nxusani’s reflections concerned South African so-called “born-free” generation finding their feet between past trauma and violations, and contemporary inequalities and violences. Her questions only confirmed the need for commemorative practices to be inclusive and diverse, as well as evolving and tuned to the present. If not, how can we understand the relevance of the past to the future?

In sum, the project showed that un-sensitive representations and commemorations of the past may well do more harm than good in terms of gender equality; they may stereotype and stigmatise, rather than unsettle and address inequalities and harms done. The more effective and transformative representations of gender in post-conflict commemorations were those that were explicitly feminist, or designed by curators and artists with a gender perspective, such as in activist art, in some of the Peruvian commemorative practices, in the Colombian preparations for a memory museum, and in the arts and justice interventions.

But symbolic reparations on their own, even if they are well designed, are not enough. Several participants highlighted the fight of survivors of human rights violations for criminal justice on the one hand (e.g. in cases of disappeared, killed, or raped persons), and the need to address economic marginalisation on the other. Both criminal justice and economic reparation have to start by the state recognising the need for justice and reparation for individual as well as collective cases, and hence, the stories that can be told and heard are very important. Marjorie Jobson told us about the struggle of the widows of the Marikani mining massacre, South Africa, to be recognised by the state and by wider society, and the continuing violence they often faced at home. Recognition pre-cedes state protection, support and benefits. Gumercinda Reynaga, reflecting on the situation of women survivors of political violence in Ayacucho, Peru, argued that women not only need the state to support and facilitate women’s memory-making efforts -which the state is currently not doing-, but also need the state to provide basic economic reparations and services. The younger generation, the daughters of those who survived the conflict, demand equal opportunities, an end to partner violence and sexual harassment, and full and equal rights for women and men. The past is relevant to the future, and if and how women and men are represented in commemorative practices might be indicative of the extent to which new generations have a voice to make claims on state and society.