Justice for women

Dr Lucy Fiske is giving a voice and a platform to women who've survived wartime atrocities.

Image:Novelist Susanne Gervay

What would justice look like to a woman who had survived the violence of war? This is the question Dr Lucy Fiske, UTS Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, has been asking of women in Kenya, northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The significance of her work hasn't gone unnoticed – she's been invited to present her research to the United Nations.The project was initiated by the NGO, ActionAid.

Dr Fiske admits she was initially hesitant to join. But after listening to ActionAid's Carol Angir about the difficulties women in the region have, she realised

"I wanted to be involved and I would need to learn more about the local context. I needed enough of a theoretical framework and a human rights framework to approach the work."

Dr Fiske and University of Sydney law lecturer, Associate Professor Rita Shackel, sought and received funding through the Australian Development Research Award Scheme.

The project is focussed on transitional justice, justice brought in after mass violence.

"It is partly about delivering or getting individual justice, but it is also about rebuilding a strong society," she explains.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is an example of such a scheme.

But there is a risk in post-conflict societies that, in the desire to restore peace, the experiences of women are overlooked. The next stage for women is therefore to participate in the rebuilding and reconciliation process.

"We need to hear from women," says Dr Fiske. "What is happening for them? Has the violence stopped?"

Rape in war is a significant injustice. Although it is now recognised as a weapon of war and a crime against humanity, securing prosecutions is extremely difficult.

"In Bosnia, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 women were raped during the war, yet there were 30 convictions," observes Dr Fiske. "That leaves an awful lot of women without criminal justice."

Even in the rare case that the victim of rape receives justice, they often then face community stigma, and they need healthcare.

The wisdom of compassion

Dr Fiske completed a BA at the University of Western Australia, majoring in history and literature.

"I have always been interested in social justice and how we live together," she says.

A social work degree followed – later working with asylum seekers and refugees; finishing her PhD in 2012 on Insider Resistance: Understanding Refugee Protest Against Immigration Detention in Australia, 1999 – 2005.

She learned that refugees, "Are rarely given a chance to speak for themselves. But if we ask, [they] have very valuable contributions to make." It's a notion that has as much significance to her current project.

"Too often women are seen as victims who need our expert help. They certainly do need some help, but we need to be asking women what they think. We are trying to broaden the lens and ask 'how has this conflict affected you, what are the legacies that you are still dealing with?" Much of the team's resources is being put into "Sitting with women and having conversations so we can try to understand the experience from their perspectives, and their ideas for what will heal them and their community."

The project, which began in March 2013, has partnered with ActionAid in Kenya, Uganda and DRC. The aim is to deliver a rigorous evidence base. Local women are trained in the elements of capacity building, interview and research skills, allowing a simpatico talk between local women and women affected by violence. The interviews are transcribed and translated and sent to Dr Fiske.

"We have Skype sessions, we've had multiple trips back and forth." In total, 180 women will be interviewed.

Effecting positive change

In March this year, several members of the project attended a meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women to talk about their work.

"To get it on the agenda, to get the traction we need, we need an evidence base, and that is what we are building."

The work that Dr Fiske is undertaking has the potential to effect change at many levels, from women who have survived mass violence, to the policy makers at the United Nations. She hopes the work will lead to an incremental shift in thinking, particularly in respecting the views of the women themselves

Although mass violence is an unpleasant subject to discuss, Dr Fiske finds the survivors inspirational.

"This project is about creating a platform for women to have a voice, to bring their voices and their experiences into the debate and using our position as western-funded academics to amplify their words. That is wonderful work to be involved in. "

Story by Åsa Wahlquist
Photo supplied