Women in war and peace

The UN Resolution which says women should take part in conflict resolution and peace processes is relevant even in other situations
Women in war and peace

Seventeen years ago, on October 31, 2000, the world (via the UN Security Council) agreed unanimously that women must be a part of conflict resolution and peace processes. The breakthrough resolution, 1325, and its successors together represent the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ (WPS) agenda of the UN—and theoretically, governments around the world.

The WPS agenda revolves around four pillars: the meaningful participation of women; the protection of women from sexual and gender-based violence; the prevention of violence against women by ending impunity, strengthening national laws and supporting women’s rights organisations and women rights defenders; and making ‘relief and recovery’ a gender-sensitive process.

This year, on the anniversary of this momentous resolution, a gathering of Central American women peace activists discussed their most urgent concerns. These are incipient concerns in South Asia too. Here so far, two kinds of conflicts have monopolised our attention: inter-state and the spectrum of identity conflicts, from ethno-national to communal. The Central American activists identified three areas of insecurity that are equally potent here.

The first is land disputes arising from economic and development policy. The acquisition of land for development projects is an old issue in India as well. Central or state governments invest in these projects, usually without a public consultation or dialogue. When projects involve private players, governments broker the deal and also provide security to the upcoming installations, pitting themselves against protesting citizens.

Official forces work with private security firms to push back citizen activism. This undemocratic story is common to South Asia (especially India) and Central America. Women are a part of these community struggles for land, vulnerable to abuse by state and private interests and also sometimes used in the vanguard of the protest movements without access to decision-making.

The second concern identified by activists from Central America was militarisation. Militarisation is not just the acquisition of weapons or even the frequent deployment of military and paramilitary for law and order or emergency purposes. It is also the quest to control and regulate every aspect of life; the official invasion of privacy ostensibly for a public purpose, and placing the military on a pedestal that grants them immunity for their actions.

The use of military language (surgical strikes, for instance) to describe civilian actions (like demonetisation) are one expression. In militarised settings, armed forces are not neutral actors but implicated in maintaining power structures—military, political, corporate and of course, patriarchal. Militarisation is alive and well in South Asia too, and not just in conflict zones. For women, militarisation reinforces patriarchal values, especially the culture of rape and impunity. Coupled with extremism (of all sorts), it reinforces moral policing focused on women’s bodies and behaviour, and limits their mobility, ergo access to education and livelihood.

The third concern that resonates globally is violence against women, or more broadly, sexual and gender-based violence. Violence is an instrument whereby unequal social orders like patriarchy express power and maintain control. Militarisation validates and reinforces violence as a way for human beings to relate to each other, and the proliferation of armed groups, official and unofficial, means the proliferation of small arms that are often available for use against family members, neighbours, vendors or anyone who offends.

Participating activists mapped violence across the spectrum and identified family, church (or faith-identified institutions), state and corporates as both sites of violence and actors to be engaged for its prevention. It is exactly the same in South Asia; the anticipation and experience of violence is a key gendered fact of life.

The gathering brought together women activists from Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador and Puerto Rico, along with a couple from the US. Agency and vulnerability ran as twin themes in the many stories shared there, as they do here.

Two urgent concerns received our support. The first followed from the murder of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran feminist and environmental activist, last year. The gathering came together on a petition that sought impartial investigation, justice and punishment for those who planned her murder, cancellation of the project she opposed and protection for those fighting for her. The second was the plight of Puerto Rico, which almost 50 days after it was hit by Hurricane Maria, is largely without electricity or water. As  activists from the US territory said, despite warnings, it is impossible to prepare for a disaster when you already have nothing.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 applies to traditional conflict contexts, and the responsibility for implementation rests squarely with member-states, who are urged to work with women’s rights groups. The ‘conflict’ mandate allows states to say (as India does) that there are no conflict zones in this country and therefore, there is no context for 1325’s implementation. Without even contesting the government’s claim, one could easily argue that the pillars of 1325 are relevant and useful even where conflicts are about land and resources, or militarisation has altered the nature of politics, or where sexual and gender-based violence are endemic. Whether the activists are from the Americas or from Asia, all of us seek, for women and other marginal groups, voice, vote and a gender-just vision of a sustainable peace.

Swarna Rajagopalan

Political scientist and peace activist

Email: swarnar@gmail.com

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