Moving On? Or Masculinist Erasure?, by Jennifer Wallace

Springtime, 2022. Covid-19 cases are thought to be declining, and government-mandated safety measures easing up. For many Canadians, a sentiment I often hear seems to capture an optimistic sense that we are all returning to normal.

Springtime, 2022. Covid-19 cases are thought to be declining, and government-mandated safety measures easing up. For many Canadians, a sentiment I often hear seems to capture an optimistic sense that we are all returning to normal. “It is time to forget Covid and move on with our lives,” is a slogan pervasively heard in this hard-to-read season.

If only it were so easy. Actually, Covid-19 cases are not declining universally, evenly, or predictably. Countries once considered to have quelled Covid-19 (China comes to mind) are experiencing new waves of it. New, more infectious variants are in the offing. Existing vaccines offer less-than-hoped-for protection. Pandemic’s perils seem to have receded—but how completely, for how long, and for whom, all remain to be determined.

In Canada, mandates are being relaxed as case numbers rise—in some places, dramatically. The populace may have decided it is time to move on from Covid-19. Whether Covid-19 itself is “moving on” is as yet unknown.

I am an historian of truth commissions. Such commissions are intended to serve as transitional processes. Through them, individuals can heal from the traumas of civil wars,  repressive regimes, or (more generally) times of human rights abuses.[1] Some scholars highlight a paradox: individuals moving on from traumas can often do so only by forgetting many of things contributing to them;  societies, on the other hand, require that traumas be accurately remembered, if the systemic issues they have revealed are not to simmer indefinitely.

Johannesburg immigrant’s descendant from the Journey Exhibit at the Apartheid Museum, by TrudiJ (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Should there be such truth commissions in the wake of Covid-19? Some practitioners in the field of truth commissions think so.[2] Some even envisage a global process of uncovering the range of inequities experienced during the pandemic—ranging from racially-charged border closures to imperially-inflected vaccine hoarding. More modest local assessments will undoubtedly figure in various countries over the next years, as leaders assess the present pandemic with an eye to planning for the next one. Such inquiries should pick up on a major theme of emergent writing on truth commissions: only a gender-sensitive approaches alert to the needs of women and queer people offer hope of delivering a balanced strategy for recovery.

Truth commissions have historically failed to adequately incorporate and reflect gendered experiences in their processes and their outputs. Existing studies have found such issues to be overlooked at three crucial junctures. The majority of truth commissions do not include mention of women or queer people in their mandates or foundational work. The experiences of trauma and hardship during a period of human rights abuses are then often categorized by the commissioners concerned, in ways that render analyzing, or even recognizing, gendered patterns difficult.[3] And finally, in preparing their respective final reports, truth commissions are frequently instrumentalized to serve a nation-building agenda, one that often sidelines the issues important to those whose gendered stories do not easily fit within it. Throughout the process,  national goals are often prioritized over individual needs.[4]  

As this issue reveals, such a gender-blind approach to the experience of Covid-19 would miss fundamentally important themes. As philosopher Nancy Fraser puts it, “social reproduction,” or care work, constitutes capital’s “hidden abode,” wherein its workers are created and sustained at minimal cost to the system, which incentivizes  “business to free-ride on care work with no obligation to replenish it.”[5] As Pat Armstrong and André Picard both note, the crisis that cost thousands of seniors’ lives in long-term care facilities arose in large part out of this gendered contradiction: women workers were asked to put their lives on the line in systemically underfunded institutions, blamed if they struggled to survive by working two or three jobs at the same time, and grievously overworked under conditions of extreme stress.[6] Recovery plans oblivious to these gendered patterns will simply perpetuate them.

The pool of reflection at the Apartheid Museum, by Katangais (CC BY-SA 3.0).

So, how can we learn from this pattern to better incorporate gendered needs in recovery plans? Some lessons are suggested by truth commissions. In Sierra Leone, the act establishing the commission specifically stated that the composition of the commission must reflect the country’s demographic make-up with respect to gender.[7] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia established an outreach committee on gender to ensure broad-based participation in the process and to ensure that women’s concerns were appropriately addressed at the outset of the process.[8] In both cases, final reports were produced that incorporated discussions of gendered experiences, and the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission even has a chapter dedicated to the gendered experiences of war. Evidently, when women and queer voices are included in the process as early as possible, there is a higher chance of such voices influencing the final product.

Such a strategy might well entail not just casting a wider net but asking different questions. In the case of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, women’s experiences often did not fit neatly into the categories of gross human rights violations detailed in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995 mandating it.[9] Rather, women more often suffered from the racialized cycle of poverty facilitated by the apartheid state. The brunt of economic hardships often fell on Black women in the community who were expected to care for their families while struggling on meager wages afforded to non-white males in migrant labour, or to survive on their own low-paid domestic work.[10] These daily struggles for survival and the impoverished living conditions that many women confronted were not recorded in the Commission Final Report. A categorical exclusion of women’s experiences directly resulted in a continued systemic exclusion of women’s needs in reparation work.

Soweto Pride 2012 participants remember two lesbians who were raped and murdered, by Charles Haynes (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The exclusion of gendered voices could be considered a masculinist strategy of erasure. In Peru, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission excluded sexual and gender-based violence from its report, even though such crimes featured prominently in the traumatic civil conflict the commission was dedicated to analyzing.[11] In South Africa, the final report minimized the violence endured by queer people, including acts of sexual violence committed during aversion therapy sessions.[12] In both cases, dwelling upon gendered trauma victims challenged the mainstream stories the respective commissions were interested in telling.

If we do undertake somewhat similar commissions in the wake of Covid-19, they will promise us much information and many useful insights into the history of this pandemic and help us prepare for the next. Yet, if we do not actively integrate a gendered lens throughout their preparation, we risk repeating the oppressive patterns of 2020-2, with all their long-term, traumatizing consequences. As we heal, slowly, from the wounds of Covid-19, still being inflicted throughout so much of the world, we can do so, not in a spirit of willed amnesia about the sacrifices of gendered subalterns, but determined that they not be in vain.

Let’s move on! It’s time to get back to normal! So vast numbers of people around the world are proclaiming. Yet, if “Moving On” equates to “Masculinist Erasure,” we will be moving on, blindly, into further situations of inequity and injustice. Why not move on, instead, with our eyes wide open, retaining accurately painful memories of the gendered fault lines the pandemic so unforgettably revealed and which a new generation might transform?

[1] Onur Bakiner, Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 24.

[2] Stephan Parmentier, “Dealing with Harm after COVID-19: What Potential of Transitional Justice?” International Journal of Restorative Justice 4, no. 2 (2021): 321.

[3] Lyn S. Graybill, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2002), 101.

[4] Richard Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 28; Richard Wilson, “Challenging Restorative Justice,” Human Rights Dialogue 2, no.7 (2002): 15.

[5] Nancy Fraser, “A Talk with Nancy Fraser,” Syndemic Magazine 1 (2022), Link to article.

[6] Tithi Bhattacharya, André Picard, and Pat Armstrong, this issue of Syndemic.

[7] Sierra Leone, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2000. Link to PDF download.

[8] Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, vol. 1 Findings and Determinations

(Monrovia: Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2008), 144-5; Also, for a broader discussion of this case, see the entry on Participedia for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.

[9] Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act 1995, pg. 3. Link to PDF download.

[10] Graybill, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa, 106; See also, the Participedia case entry for the South African Commission of Truth and Reconciliation (TRC).

[11] Katherine Fobear, “Queering Truth Commissions,” Journal of Human Rights Practice 6, no. 1 (2014): 57.

[12] Fobear, “Queering Truth Commissions,” 56.