Gender Society

By denying women justice and equal opportunity, India falls far short of the UN’s women, peace and security agenda

Women play an important role in conversations around healing, reconciliation, peace and justice.

Women play an important role in conversations around healing, reconciliation, peace and justice.

In 2008, a 17-year-old Adivasi girl, Kawasi Hidme, was arrested in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, for “being involved in the killing of 23 policemen” along with a group of Maoists. For the first three months after arrest, she was allegedly chained, beaten, raped and tortured in police custody, and kept naked during detention. After seven years, she was acquitted of all charges. In 2013, a girl studying in Class VI was raped by a constable of the Indian Reserve Battalion after he forced her to consume alcohol in Longding, Arunachal Pradesh. The girl was found lying unconscious beside the circuit house.

Kawasi Hidme, an Adivasi woman from Bastar, Chhattisgarh, was tortured and sexually assaulted in police custody.

Kawasi Hidme, an Adivasi woman from Bastar, Chhattisgarh, was tortured and sexually assaulted in police custody.

These are just two of 114 instances of recorded sexual violence perpetrated against women by the armed forces and the State police between October 2000 and October 2020 in 11 States affected by armed conflict. They have been documented in India: 20 Years of the UNSC Resolution 1325 , a report by the Asian Centre for Human Rights. The report also lists acts of sexual violence by non-state actors and by armed opposition groups.

The Northeast, Andhra Pradesh, Central India and Jammu and Kashmir are regions of heavy militarisation that have witnessed long periods of conflict. Although there is an automatic invisibilisation and dehumanising of women in all conflict situations, they play an important role in conversations around healing, reconciliation, peace and justice. The Naga Mothers’ Association, Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir, Soni Sori’s fight in Chhattisgarh, and Paramjit Kaur Khalra’s in Punjab are examples of how women have demanded accountability and remedy. Yet, the talking heads from both the resisting and oppressing communities in conflicts are mostly men. Feminist historian Urvashi Butalia, in The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India , tells us women were very much a part of the negotiating process during the freedom struggle, but they were simply not written about and their contribution erased from history.

India ranks 148 among 170 countries in this year’s Women, Peace and Security Index published by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Peace Research Institute Oslo. The index measures parameters such as women’s education, financial inclusion, employment, absence of legal discrimination, and perception of community safety.

In 2000, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1325, which formally acknowledged, for the first time, the role of women in peace making, peace keeping and peace building and mandated a meaningful inclusion of women in the male-dominated spaces of decision-making on peace and security. It was a commitment to address the disproportionate impact armed conflict had on women and girls, to protect them from gender-based violence — especially sexual violence — and incorporate a gender lens in policy formation and implementation.

A relative of a missing person in Srinagar takes part in a protest organised by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in August 2017.

A relative of a missing person in Srinagar takes part in a protest organised by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in August 2017.

Over 50,000 women convened in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and declared women’s rights were human rights. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that resulted from the conference, set objectives to ensure the involvement of women in peace and security. At the 23rd Special Session of the UN General Assembly (called Beijing + 5) in 2000, a political declaration document was adopted that discussed women and armed conflict. During its presidency in the Security Council, Namibia initiated the Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security; Canada on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict; the Netherlands on Children and Armed Conflict; and Bangladesh, during its term in 2000, drew attention to women’s contribution to peace and security. All these, coupled with lobbying by NGOs and civil society, built momentum for the passage of UNSCR 1325. Since then, nine supporting Security Council resolutions have been passed, addressing different concerns of women, peace and security.

In her address last year, on the 20th anniversary of UNSCR 1325, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the then UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, said there was evidence that peace agreements were more likely to last 15 years or longer when women were at the negotiating table. “Evidence shows that peace processes that involve women are key to long-term and lasting peace.” Yet, women are systematically excluded from the process. According to UN Women, in peace negotiations between 1992 and 2019, only 13% of negotiators, 6% of mediators, and 6% of peace agreement signatories were women. Peace agreements with gender equality provisions increased from 14% in 1995 to only 22% in 2019.

Non-international conflict

To tackle this deficit in implementation and accountability, the National Action Plans (NAPs) on women in peace and security were introduced in 2005. Denmark was the first country to draft one, followed by Norway, Sweden and the U.K. NAPs detail the steps a member state can take to effectively implement Resolution 1325. As the resolution celebrated its 21st anniversary on October 31, it boasted NAPs from 98 countries. India is not one of those countries.

In 2007, when the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women asked how UNSCR 1325 was being implemented, India’s response was, “There are no situations of ‘armed conflict’ within the territory of India, and hence UNSCR 1325 relating to Women in Armed Conflict is not applicable to India.” India refers to areas of heavy militarisation as ‘disturbed areas’ and calls them ‘law and order’ problems invoking domestic laws. India has not ratified Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions either, which is the first-ever treaty to exclusively deal with situations of non-international armed conflicts. Says Guneet Kaur, a Ph.D scholar in conflict and remedy at Humboldt University, Berlin: “By not recognising non-international armed conflict, India very conveniently does not acknowledge their existence. But this non-recognition doesn’t mean armed conflicts don’t exist.”

Adivasi rights activist and politician Soni Sori was sexually assaulted in police custody.

Adivasi rights activist and politician Soni Sori was sexually assaulted in police custody.

Guneet, who was previously part of the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that provides legal help in five insurgency-affected districts in Chhattisgarh, adds that these areas of conflict see rampant violations of human rights, humanitarian law, and international criminal law involving civilians and non-combatants. “India’s policy position has been to present a political dispute as a legal dispute, justifying draconian laws like AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act]. There is no accountability, as these laws confer complete impunity on the armed forces.” Without accountability, the process of peace building is incomplete. Remedy, accountability and healing are three requisites for peace. As Guneet says, oppressors must be held accountable and those harmed must be recompensed. Then begins the process of healing for the communities. “That’s why peace and security aren’t necessarily two sides of the same coin. Even in a post-war period, there can be communities living in conflict with the state and not in peace because of wounds that are still open.”

Women are active agents who drive these elements in the peace process, even though their role is unrecognised and unacknowledged. Adopting a gender lens is also essential to understand the different forms of violence. For example, reaction to sexualised violence is shaped by the gender of the survivor. Guneet explains, “Sexualised violence against men is often not even acknowledged while that against women becomes a question of honour.”

Moments of triumph

As a major troop-contributing country, India has increasingly used the rhetoric on 1325 for virtue-signalling and to further its ambitions of a permanent seat at the Security Council. India’s deployment of an all-female police unit to the peacekeeping mission in Liberia does not translate to upholding the vision of 1325 in the absence of a domestic policy on women in conflict areas. In failing to hold the armed forces accountable for their excesses, in continuing to shield perpetrators of violence with the help of undemocratic laws, and in denying women agency and equal opportunity for political participation, India falls excruciatingly short of the women, peace and security agenda.

India does not allow discussions on its internal armed conflicts in the international arena by exercising its clout, which stems from being a major market for the arms trade. It has dubbed allegations of human rights violations in quelling political dissent as baseless, refusing to engage with them the few times special rapporteurs have brought it up. Any meaningful commitment to 1325 can begin only when the country addresses the culture of impunity that is so deeply embedded in the foundation of its post-colonial practice. Doing away with the nebulous requirement of prior sanction for prosecuting security forces working under AFSPA, at least in cases of sexual offences, can be a start in this direction.

A protest meet in Visakhapatnam, 2019.

A protest meet in Visakhapatnam, 2019.

UNSCR 1325 has had its moments of triumph, showing promise for the world. Liberian women, led by Leymah Gbowee, helped end a 14-year civil war using non-violent protests and a peaceful election. They got Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Gbowee and Sirleaf, along with Yemen’s journalist and politician Tawakkol Karman, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. The Philippines appointed Miriam Coronel-Ferrer to lead peace negotiations with the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front, making her the first woman chief negotiator to sign a peace accord with a rebel group. In Colombia, the Havana peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was signed after 52 years of conflict, and contains 130 provisions on gender issues. Four Afghan women delegates took part in the Bonn conference, convened to discuss the formation of an interim government after the Taliban was toppled. This was, of course, short-lived, since the Taliban came back to power in August, upending all progress.

The resolution has its share of criticism. An over-reliance on quantitative data is seen as myopic; merely advocating for more women in peace operations is useless without addressing issues of class, caste, race and masculinity. It has also been flagged for gender essentialism, pushing the narrative of women as perpetual victims and as more peaceful. Besides, its vocabulary needs to be inclusive, acknowledging men and children as well as sexual, gender, ethnic and racial minorities.

Despite its shortcomings, as Dolly Kikon — feminist scholar and anthropologist who was one of the 20 women from 20 countries profiled for the 20th anniversary of the resolution by Heinrich Böll Foundation — said in an earlier conversation, resolutions like 1325 give young adults from conflict areas such as the Northeast a language of peace and reconciliation. “It is a vision document, which tells us what it means to actually push for and desire universal rights.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | May 17, 2022 3:58:10 am |