Show me a Woman! An interview with Dr. Chiseche Mibenge by Dr. Irene Hadiprayitno

May 2010, Utrecht

Chiseche recently defended her PhD titled: Show me a Woman! Narratives of Gender and Violence in Human Rights Law and Processes of Transitional Justice. As a colleague and close friend of Chiseche I was happy to act as her paranymph on that day. Chiseche’s research asks the legal profession to examine the gender biases in the transitional justice processes. She shows with her research that these biases require and create a ‘model’ or ‘iconic’ rape victim, and lead to the exclusion of many men and women victims of gender based violence and at the same time force victims (given access to justice) to narrate an essentialising experience of violence that is scripted by the Tribunal and its priorities/mandate.

Chiseche, can you tell us how you started your PhD research at SIM? 

My career began in Zambia as a corporate lawyer for Ernst & Young. However, I was a volunteer during the weekends working with refugees who had fled from Rwanda and Congo and with local street children. Ultimately, I found this work more rewarding than my day job. I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives, more than in performing company secretarial functions for investors. I decided on a career change and as a first step, pursued a Master’s program in human rights at the Utrecht Law School. I loved the Masters program and in particular, the opportunity to independently research ongoing justice processes in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and South Africa. I was fortunate that my supervisors, Cees Flinterman and Andre Klip identified my potential as a strong researcher (a career I had never considered) and encouraged me to seriously consider doctoral research.

  I have enjoyed reading your dissertation and I learnt a lot from it. What was the main challenge of writing it?

Thank you Irene. One of my longest held dreams is to pursue an MFA in creative writing and publish my works of fiction and poetry. So,  I’m happy to hear that even my ‘boring academic stuff’ is enjoyable reading. I must say in answer to your question that I’ve always loved to write, even in elementary school I received awards for my writing – my hobbies back then were reading and writing, and this remains the case today. So, writing the dissertation was not a challenge as such. I was also fortunate to have had a ‘sabbatical’ year reserved exclusively for writing. As an international visiting scholar at American University, Washington College of Law I reported to the library six days a week for 8 straight months and I did what I love best: I read and I wrote, and I wrote some more – I had no social, familial, professional or other competing obligations. The challenge I am experiencing now is linked to the transformation of my thesis into a successful book for a readership beyond the legal academy or defense panel. I am working with a development editor at Pennsylvania University Press on reworking my introduction and conclusion – an exciting process, but one that requires some refocusing. Think of being told that in order to win the cash prize you have to do just a couple more miles with a trainer on top of the marathon you just finished.

You did field research in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Can you tell us how and why you decided to choose them as your case studies?

My decision to focus on Rwanda and Sierra Leone, two African countries best known in the international community for decades of political violence and armed conflict, was not taken to highlight the most extreme or egregious manifestations of unequal gender hegemonies in wartime. Rather, the two countries’ post war reconstruction processes present many responses to gender inequality in their societies. These responses have taken many shapes including human rights advocacy, affirmative action, reform of discriminatory legislation, security sector reform, demobilisation of fighters, civil society activism, education and community sensitisation, constitutional amendments, and criminalisation. I could say in fact that the two countries provide a success story in this respect. Both countries are rich in gender narratives that compete with as well as complement these processes – and I enjoyed the process of selecting narratives for analysis.  I can add that I initially considered including the former Yugoslavia in my research, however, I found that the gender dynamics that made violence against women a weapon of war in the former Yugoslavia bore an uncanny resemblance to those in Rwanda. Ethnic cleansing and genocide are I would say ‘close cousins’. The differences in the experience of violence in Rwanda and Sierra Leone were very pronounced and this suited the needs of my research.

You studied law and international human rights law before you started your PhD at SIM. Why did you choose interdisciplinary approach in your research? How has your academic background influenced your research?

Pursuing interdisciplinary research methods was influenced by my experience as a law student – almost fifteen years ago. The common law system I was trained in at University of Zambia was so far removed from the reality of ordinary Zambians, who could neither afford legal representation and nominal court fees nor understand the language of the Courts (Shakespearean English) that I struggled to find the relevance of legal studies or a legal career. I remained a mediocre law student and legal practitioner until I trusted my instinct and begun to investigate the ways in which social scientists; anthropologists, psychologists and political scientists in particular, approached law and its legitimacy. For a long while, I thought that I had to give up law, but with maturity gained through the Masters and PhD process I realized that an interdisciplinary approach would not make me less of a lawyer but would make me a more relevant lawyer.

In your opinion how important it is to confront international human rights law and international criminal law with social narratives taken from realities in analyzing gender-based violence? How can using social narratives change the research agenda of international human rights law and international criminal law?

Human rights defenders, advocates, activists and legal practitioners engaged in the pursuit of international criminal justice are in the business of condemning and challenging violations in ‘poor’, ‘backwards’ Republics. They promise justice, rule of law and democracy, and they try to transform the culture that permits gross violations of human rights. However, these actors are often blind to  deficiencies in their own culture and the complex motivations that influence and even undermine their work. Is it possible that racist overtones might color an international campaign against FGC in Sierra Leone? Or that colonizing ambitions might allow donor aid to flow unchecked to a repressive regime? These questions can be answered with the help of social-political narratives. Thus, it is important for the researcher to analyze the case law of the ad hoc criminal tribunals, but this research is incomplete without for example, understanding; why a criminal tribunal for Rwanda’s interahamwe and not South Africa’s apartheid regime – and the implications of such choices for legitimacy; or why we prosecute rape as a form of torture but not as killing. These answers lie in the narratives, taken at the level of inter-state negotiation, victim and perpetrator interviews and participation, media coverage and attention, etc. The research agenda for IHRL and ICL needs narrative analysis in order to move the researcher from the level of fulfilling basic law school exercises to formulating policy for reform of legal systems and entire justice sectors.

You have successfully defended your dissertation on March 31, 2010? How do you feel about the aftermath of the event?

I defended my PhD and expected a long well earned holiday. This has yet to materialize! This summer I will be teaching in Ljubljana at a summer school, taking part in a two week workshop in Dar es Salaam organized by the American Political Science Association (on Global Perspectives on Gender) and as an independent consultant, conducting an extensive desk review for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Gender Division. I am also submitting an article to the Journal of Peacekeeping and Development in a fortnight! In a sense it’s wonderful to be invited to take part in projects and to feel that I am regarded as Dr. Mibenge, an expert in my field – I’m really grateful for the opportunity to continue developing my network, to share my knowledge and to continue learning. I like to believe that ‘school Is never over’ for the inquisitive minded.

What are your career plans for the future?

My career focus for at least the next decade will continue to center around these three pillars: Teaching, research and service. In the past year as the close of my doctoral program neared I began to circulate my CV throughout my network and to meet with different organizations in the US, in Europe and in Africa to discuss their objectives and mine and of course the potential for collaboration. In the past nine months I’ve acted as a consultant for UNIFEM in Sierra Leone, UNOHCHR in the Congo-Kinshasa, for civil society organizations in Rwanda and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Holland – each of these experiences gave me an insight into new institutional cultures, and my own ability to adapt and develop my skill set.

These experiences and exchanges helped me to make the decision to remain in academia. This Fall I will take up a tenure track assistant professor position at City University of New York’s Lehman College (Department of Political Science) – I have designed two new courses in Human Rights and International Law, and am also reworking a pre-existing course on Politics and Culture in order to introduce gender and race discrimination as core themes for analysis. I’ve loved to teach since I was a little girl, and I’m excited about this opportunity. The academic calendar is very flexible and will give me time for field work – I’ll divide my summer months between Latin America and Africa, conducting research and teaching in the area of human rights, gender and access to justice.

I mentioned service as a career pillar, and this relates to the values I was raised with, and my Faith. My work must be a form of service, to my profession and to my community. And I am excited at the opportunities for service in the shape of ministry, volunteerism, activism and advocacy that the US, Latin America and Africa will bring.


Netherlands Institute for Human Rights Newsletter

Inter-disciplinarity in Human Rights Research – Problems and Possibilities for Field research in Sierra Leone

Chiseche Mibenge

 I recently returned from a six week period of field research in Sierra Leone. My PhD thesis examines sexual violence in wartime and access to effective remedies for survivors. It is primarily a legal research, however, field research has been an integral part of my process. I first conducted field research in June 2004 in Rwanda and am still amazed at how that experience has shaped my understanding of the environment in which women experience sexual violence and suffer its social and political repercussions years and even decades after the war officially ends.

Immediately after research friends and colleagues are curious abut my time in Sierra Leone. My initial reply is: ‘It was very hot…the beaches were lovely…the seafood was very fresh…the music was good.’ What I don’t mention in these trite remarks is how difficult field research can be, in part because of the subject of my research: Abducted women and girls who suffered multiple or gang rapes and were subsequently forced into ‘marriage’ with rebels and the double discrimination these women face when seeking access to postwar transitional processes such as DDR, family reunification and criminal justice. An unknown yet apparently significant number of girls remain in these ‘marriages’ to this day, many have children with their ‘husbands’ and have been rejected by their families.

Apart from the subject matter, the real difficulty was the confrontational aspect of field research in Sierra Leone. As with Rwanda I was faced with some serious identity and very gender specific crises throughout my stay in Sierra Leone. An extract from a personal letter written to my sisters highlights this somewhat:

I traveled to the Provinces on Tuesday and was traumatised. There were five of us (adults) sitting in the front seat of the minibus: Two on the drivers seat, two on the passenger seat and a poor fellow crouched over the gear. And the man squeezed on my right was trying to squeeze me – pervert! I was furious, covered in dust and the hem of my jeans was coated in human excreta I stepped into at a roadside stop. When we finally arrived after 5 hours of road rage from wrestling with the pervert, my hosts had a hard time recognising glamorous me! …I didn’t realise how bad I looked until eventually they gave me a wet face cloth to clean myself off before starting on our programme. I wiped my face with it, then they asked me as politely as they could to wipe my hair – it was brown too. I’m crying with laughter now, but at the time! I was on fire. Girls, field research…don’t think I’m on holiday-o.

Anyway…they took me to a refugee camp and I met Liberian women. I was stunned, women mommy’s age walked right up to me and said: ‘I was raped by 5 men…I bleed every time my husband sleeps with me…my discharge doesn’t stop…I smell bad I’m incontinent…my womb is coming out.’ And they TALK, it must be a kind of therapy. I just had to say ‘OK Auntie….thank you auntie…what about you auntie…who raped you auntie…sorry auntie.’ At one point one of the leaders of the group broke down and said: ‘Look at you you’re my daughter! I’m your mother. But look at me, so helpless.’ There was nothing left to do but to cry, I tell you. We all just joined in. It was S-A-D.

I was myself sexually harassed by a fellow traveler and before I could deal with my own rage and sense of powerlessness, I was confronted by over forty women who demanded that I deal with the most intimate accounts of their own victimhood. African women who regarded me first as their child, second as a woman and third as a lawyer. The protection of the academic mask and distance were lost to me on that occasion.

One week after my return from Freetown I shared this and other field experiences with fellow PhD researchers and Professors at LSE. On 20 March 2007 I took part in the working conference for research students organised by LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights: Advancing Inter-disciplinarity in Human Rights Research – Problems and Possibilities. I was one of two speakers invited to speak in a session titled: Human Rights and Wartime Abuses. Prof Christine Chinkin (LSE) and Dr. Gerd Oberleitner (University of Graz) acted as chair and commentator respectively. It was an invigorating environment, and I admired other PhD students at the Centre who so comfortably combined backgrounds in philosophy, psychology, public health, history with law. The social scientists were highly appreciative of the emotional and human side of my (field) research but cautious about whether my methodology would ever stand up to a rigorous examination by an ‘IRB’. I googled this acronym a few minutes ago and discovered it means an international review board or independent ethics committee. Dr Chaloka Beyani (LSE) however reassured me with the comment that my field research approach followed the basic human rights law methodology: documentation through fact finding, corroboration or testing of facts and finally, assessment of facts in the light of human rights standards.

I met with refugee women, single women, academics, married women, professionals, civil servants, a chief, a mayor, a priest and others in order to hear their thoughts and experiences of the gender regime in Sierra Leone. We talked frankly about marriage, initiation, domestic violence, rape, circumcision, arranged marriage, motherhood, fatherhood, the family, and sexuality in the context of peace and war. This helped me to gain a modest understanding of social and cultural attitudes regarding the role and status of women in private and public life and how the civil war has affected this.

I also spent a substantial amount of time examining Sierra Leone’s pluralist justice systems through a gender lens (Islamic law, Christian law, customary law, and common law are all applicable). I quickly discovered that Sierra Leone’s Constitution denies women their fundamental human rights by permitting carte blanche discrimination with regard to adoption, marriage, burial, and devolution of property on death or other interests of personal law. In a predominantly rural, patriarchal society where popular stereotypes of women belittle their contribution to society and exclude them from equal access to resources ranging from education to basic health care, the denial of human rights by the Constitution has a particularly egregious impact on women. For example, a woman marrying under the Christian Marriage Act is still governed by customary law with regard to property inheritance on the death of her husband and customary law denies widows the right to inherit. This Constitutional provision has made it nearly impossible for women to challenge traditional practices such as circumcision, early marriage and denial of property rights. This was glaringly obvious to me when I encountered a recurring refrain at Sierra Leone Police Family Support Units in Bo, Makeni and Freetown when I asked how they dealt with complainants alleging harmful traditional practices such as forced circumcision: ‘These are customs and not crimes and cannot be dealt with by the police. Tradition is not within our jurisprudence.’ The derogation forces or allows enforcement agents to treat violations as social rather than human rights issues.

Sadly, I found that many of the discriminatory attitudes alive in Sierra Leone’s laws were replicated in the Prosecutor’s strategy before the Special Court, where I noted with surprise that girl fighters have been nearly entirely excluded from selection as witnesses, in favour of ‘more reliable’ boy fighters or adult expert witnesses. This led me to conclude that girls are useful to the Court only in the role of sex slaves and passive victims. Further, the absence of any sexual violence charges in the CDF case remains a terrible blight on a Court claiming: “to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law”, a mandate founded on recognition by the Secretary-General that “sexual violence committed against girls and women was one of the most egregious practices committed during the armed conflict in Sierra Leone.” (Dissenting Opinion of Judge Pierre Boutet on decision on the Prosecution’s Application for Leave to file an Interlocutory Appeal against the Decision on the prosecution’s Request for Leave to Amend the Indictment against Samuel Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa, 5 August 2004 Paragraph 18.)

This aspect of my research involved collection of legal documents, case law and writings by Sierra Leonean activists, NGOs and INGOs on the legal and political framework in which discrimination occurs. It was the safe and predictable side of field research, and I received substantial assistance from UNICEF, the Special Court, Fourah Bay College’s department of gender studies, Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, local councillors, the newly founded human rights commission and various human rights agencies.

It was a fruitful time in Sierra Leone. I encountered so many human rights conundrums that I simply couldn’t pursue further in the limited time I had. I intend to revisit the country for a spell of postdoctoral research in 2008.

A Personal Reflection on Peace, War and Sexual Violence

24 October 2006, Utrecht for Tears of the Oppressed, Australia

Chiseche Mibenge is a junior researcher with the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights research. She is writing her PhD thesis on the right to access to an effective remedy for victims of wartime sexual violence. She focuses on transitional justice processes in Rwanda and Sierra Leone

Some years ago I interned at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I observed the cross examination of a female witness regarding the torture of men in her village. Not once was she asked about her own suffering during the conflict. At the close of her two day testimony, the Judge made the standard ‘thank you for your contribution to international justice’ speech. He then unexpectedly said: Madam I’ve read your pre-trial statements and I know that you were gang raped by soldiers. Did you report this crime?’ She replied that she had. He asked what had happened to these men and she replied ‘Nothing your Honour.’

This woman’s statement struck home to me the reality for the majority of rape survivors in the aftermath of conflict: Their rapists are at home and at large; and impunity for these so-called ‘small fish’, can only be challenged by local processes of transitional justice.

For the most part women survivors’ experience of peacetime means ongoing violence or threats of violence, privation, and social marginalisation. In conflict studies they refer critically to a ‘limited peace goal’ in which peace is understood to be the absence of widespread violence attaching to war (Pankhurst: 2003). This is a form of negative peace and it fosters a society in which social and or structural violence against women is prevalent. This negative peace has an impact on rape survivors’ ability to access justice and effective remedies essential for social rehabilitation and reconciliation.

During my field research in Rwanda I was regularly informed that: Since the genocide, sexual violence had escalated; secondly, that it was directly linked to the widespread sexual violence that was a part of the genocide; and thirdly, couldn’t I forget about the genocide and instead focus my research on the ‘new’ violence against women and girls?

The ‘new’ violence takes many forms. In many cases it is linked to the increasing feminisation of poverty which forced many to resort to ‘survival sex’, prostitution and other egregious forms of sexual exploitation. Disturbingly, I encountered jeering and even hostile language directed against women survivors of genocide. In some quarters women were regarded as having ‘collaborated’ with the killers and traded their bodies for life. This imputation was most harmful for women forced to ‘marry’ their ‘saviours’ during the genocide. I also became aware that women survivors were particularly vulnerable to killings if they appeared prepared to report wartime rapes.

Sex and gender based hostility towards women survivors is reflected in transitional justice processes. One academic describes violence as it was experienced by Jewish women in concentration camps during the War. She refers to the separation of nursing mothers from babies, forced nudity before male wardens, gynaecological body searches, etc. She points out that these highly sexualised abuses never made it into the discourse of international and national military justice of post-war Europe because of their gender specific nature (Aolain: 2000).

Sadly, an analogy can be made with Rwanda’s genocide laws. In 1996 Parliamentarians proscribed ‘sexual torture’ in the genocide law in order to emphasise that genocide and sexual mutilations happened to Tutsi men as well as women. Women did not warrant special attention in the genocide laws and therefore, the terms ‘rape’ and ‘sexual violence’ as gender specific terms describing the experience of Rwandan women and girls were rejected outright. It was not until 2001 that these terms were included in the genocide laws (Gacaca Law 2001).

And whilst sexual violence and rape are finally specifically proscribed in the genocide laws, reporting, prosecution and conviction rates remain unacceptably low as little is done to mitigate the socio-cultural and security constraints women survivors face when seeking justice.

Among criminologists there is a growing sophistication about the nature of sexual violence in armed conflict. It is accepted that in Rwanda rape was an element of genocide i.e. the planners of the genocide intended that as a result of multiple rapes Tutsi women physically or symbolically would bear Hutu children. This sophistry in analysing sexual violence has been essential to securing convictions in war crimes trials, however, it has little impact on improving the lives of survivors.

As activists we need to understand the root causes of gender based violence, especially rape, in armed conflict in order to transform harmful constructions of masculinity, womanhood and patriarchy as they existed prior to armed conflict and as they persist into ‘peace’ time. We need to challenge postwar governments and the international community to place women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination at the heart of reconstruction policy and in particular with respect to processes of both transitional and social justice.



 Interview with Noelle Quenivet

Utrecht University

Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance

“Making a difference in people’s lives”

Having arrived at Utrecht University as an LL M student, Chiseche Mibenge went on to research victims’ rights to access effective remedies in postconflict countries including Rwanda and Sierra Leone. She has won various awards for her research and is currently finishing her Ph.D. at Netherlands Institute of Human Rights.

“I got into the legal profession by accident. I wanted to study languages, but in Zambia these areas of study are not highly valued and my parents encouraged me to do law. I hated it. It was a lot of memorizing and very little analysis.

When I worked in Zambia as a corporate lawyer for Ernst & Young, I was a volunteer during the weekends working with female refugees who had fled from Rwanda and Congo. These women were left totally unprotected by our legal system. That really hit me. In the end, I found this work more rewarding than my ‘day’ job. I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives, more than in privatization projects. I decided to change my career trajectory and follow a Master’s programme in human rights at the Utrecht Law School.

I chose to research armed conflict, sexual violence and women’s right to justice. Besides examining the legal issues, my research also covers the cultural, social and economic obstacles that prevent women from accessing justice. This has led me to the most rewarding aspect of my PhD, namely, field research in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Meeting with Chiefs, policemen and women, demobilised soldiers, refugees, academics, prosecutors and human rights acitivists in transitional societies challenged my theoretical construction of gender-based discrimination as a human rights violation. Interviews with local people taught me the lesson that law school did not: Law must be contextualised to accommodate the lived reality of violently divided societies. Only then can it begin to be a force in transforming social inequalities and a culture of human rights abuse.

I intend to act as a bridge between academics and policy makers – by exposing the lived reality of women through grassroots field research I can influence international aid organisations in their formulation of projects stengthening legal education and rule of law in postconflict societies.

Working at this faculty allows me to feel part of the international community committed to human rights research and activism. I have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and visited the University of Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies as a research fellow. As a member of the EU funded Association for Human Rights Institutes I have visited human rights centres in Vienna, Essex and Galway and shared my research findings with an interdisciplinary group of fellow junior researchers and professors. I see the faculty as a springboard.”