Urgency Praxis, Sexual Violence and Feminist Knowledge Production in Guatemalan Truth-Telling
Rosser, Emily Catherine
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Since the early 1990s, feminist interventions in international law have sought to make sexual violence in wartime more visible, punishable and preventable. This dissertation focuses on the experiences of workers and the development of feminist analysis in the Interdiocesan Recuperation of Historical Memory project (REMHI, 1994-1998) and the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH, 1997-1999), two truth-telling processes in Guatemala that operated during these broader historical shifts. Often considered silence-breakers on sexual and other violations in the 36-year internal armed conflict, these historically-grounded processes provide a unique perspective on feminist transitional justice work, and important insights for those facing similar issues elsewhere. Drawing on interviews, textual analysis and a range of secondary sources, my dissertation makes three key contributions. First, given persistent international failures to turn gender visibility into accountability, I propose the conceptual tools of ‘participatory rhetoric’ and ‘worstness’ to clarify the representational limitations of a perpetual focus on visibility and ‘silence-breaking.’ Discourses of participation and victim-centeredness often conceal continuing structural limitations to marginalised women’s analytical involvement in rights work. Such conditions tend to channel women’s testimony into narratives of ahistorical victimisation, diminishing the historical significance of women’s wartime experiences and muting their postwar political demands. Second, I shift the methodological gaze of research on sexual violence from the trauma of victims to the mediating practices of rights workers. I argue that ongoing feminist efforts to expose sexual violence in Guatemala have driven broader challenges to the gendered hierarchies and exhausting practices of objective knowledge production favoured in human rights work. Using a discursive approach to rights, I show through a range of practices that workers in ‘peripheral’ sites like Guatemala are key actors, knowledge producers and innovators whose creative contributions should be major case studies informing transitional justice. Third, I highlight the practical adaptations and intense emotional labour required to perform high stakes truth-telling work successfully. With empirical support from interviews, I propose the framework of ‘urgency praxis’ to better account for the limited representational possibilities, the naturalised divisions of labour and the exhaustion of social movements that are products of this race-against-time form of rights defense.