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Beyond Sexual Violence in Transitional Justice: Political Insecurity as a Gendered Harm


The growing literature on gender in armed conflict and the debates over post-conflict reparations for women, focus on the prevalence and harms of sexual violence. While this focus has recently been critiqued, there are few articulations of other types of gendered injuries. This article decentres the emphasis on sexual violence by examining the intersection between forced displacement and political insecurity. Based on extensive field research in Colombia, and using as an example a case study of an internally displaced women’s grassroots organization in Cartagena, Colombia, this article examines political insecurity as a specifically gendered harm. It reflects on the concrete circumstances of insecurity, on the relevance of traditional gender roles in the constitution of insecurity, and on the challenges for court-ordered remedies. This widening of the scope of attention also invites complex reflection on the possibility of transformative reparations in post-conflict situations.

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  1. 1.

    This scholarship frequently takes an ethnographic approach to the study of women’s experiences with transitional justice. A parallel line of inquiry takes a political science focus on the gendered dimensions of the transition from repressive dictatorship to liberal democracy; see particularly the work of Georgina Waylen, including (1994).

  2. 2.

    This is often framed as a debate between the Halley and MacKinnon schools of thought. For the key contributions, see MacKinnon (1994, 2013) and Halley, Janet et al. (2006) and Halley (2008). For an attempt at balanced refereeing, see Charlesworth (2011). Surprisingly the legal debate often seems to bracket the social science directly related to the occurrence of sexual violence in war: see Wood (2006, 2012).

  3. 3.

    In the 2009 “Cotton Field case”, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights observed that reparation in a context of structural discrimination must be designed to change this situation, “so that their effect is not only of restitution, but also of rectification.” Rubio-Marin and Sandoval (2011). See generally Daly and Stubbs (2006).

  4. 4.

    Armed conflict has waged for over 50 years and involved the government, self-identified Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary outfits and organized crime. For data on displacement see IDMC (2014).

  5. 5.

    The tutela action enables Colombian citizens to object to violations of their basic rights and to receive a judicial decision within 10 days. While any judge can receive and decide on tutela cases, their final revision rests with the Constitutional Court.

  6. 6.

    Structural litigation in the Colombian legal system is undertaken when the Constitutional Court considers that repeated and serious human rights violations reveal an underlying systemic problem that creates what the Court calls “an unconstitutional state of affairs.” Once this state is declared, the Court orders the Government to take measures to remedy the systemic problem, and oversees effective implementation of these remedies through follow up awards based on public hearings, government report, and civil society reports.

  7. 7.

    By government we denote the executive branch at the national level, following the Spanish use of the term el gobierno. When we mean the executive branch at the local level we explicitly mention the municipal or provincial government.

  8. 8.

    Constitutional Court of Colombia, Order 098 of 2013, 17, 79, and 105. The order cites Human Rights Watch research—including threats against displaced women leaders seeking land restitution—and concludes that the risk female IDPs leaders face due to their leadership has worsened since 2009.

  9. 9.

    Ibid 29. Translation by the authors.

  10. 10.

    The shorter case studies considered the alternative healing strategies used by the Casa Amazonia, in Mocoa; the legal strategies of the women lawyers’ collective (Colectivo de Mujeres al Derecho or COLEMAD) in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast; and the feminist approaches underlying the constitution of the Women’s Committee of the National Indigenous Association (CNMI), which is a branch of ONIC (Organización Nacional Indígena), the largest indigenous rights association in the country. Each of the case studies was developed over a 4 to 6 month period on the basis of in-depth interviews, participant observation, and reviews of press coverage and human rights reports.

  11. 11.

    Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Cancilleria) Colombia, Ayuda memoria reunión interinstitucional Medidas Cuatelares MC 309 09, Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas, Turbaco, Bolivar, December 7 2012, on file with author.

  12. 12.

    Unless otherwise noted, the information on the Liga in this section comes from our extensive fieldwork and interviews in 2010 and 2011. We published an extended case study in Spanish including our survey data: Lemaitre et al. (2014).

  13. 13.

    Ana Luz Ortega, Bogotá, May 2, 2014. Ana Luz spoke at length about her experience as a leader in a workshop in Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá where leaders read first drafts of the case studies we had written about the different organizations, and commented on them. She considered this story was missing from our understanding of what it was like to be a victim of forced displacement.


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The study on which this article is based, entitled “The Significance of Political Organization and International Law for Internally Displaced Women in Colombia: A Socio-Legal Study of Liga de Mujeres, is a joint undertaking on the part of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), in Norway, and the Centro de Investigaciones Socio-Jurídicas (CIJUS) Universidad de los Andes Bogotá, Colombia. The Norwegian Research Council funded the study. The data collected for this Project has been stored according to the regulations and requirements of the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD). The authors thank Eva Sol Lopez, Juan Pablo Mosquera and Juliana Vargas for creative and committed research assistance, and the editors and anonymous reviewers at Feminist Legal Studies for detailed and insightful comments on a previous version of this article.

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Correspondence to Julieta Lemaitre or Kristin Bergtora Sandvik.

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Lemaitre, J., Sandvik, K.B. Beyond Sexual Violence in Transitional Justice: Political Insecurity as a Gendered Harm. Fem Leg Stud 22, 243–261 (2014).

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  • Colombia
  • Colombian Constitutional Court
  • Gender and transitional justice
  • Insecurity
  • Internal displacement
  • Reparations