Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

October 6, 2011

The Centre for North East Studies & Policy Research, based in New Delhi and Guwahati, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have just released a report on the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland and Assam, two states on India’s northeastern frontier. The study is based on intensive field work and documentation in these areas.

The researchers set out to speak primarily to victims of trauma and PTSD. But in Nagaland, they identified seven kinds of trauma, and found it hard to restrict their conversations to respondents that primarily fit their research design. Their listing of seven kinds of trauma brought home just how profound the impact of conflict can be and how long this impact can last (pages 10-11). Apart from the trauma experienced by individual women when they themselves were assaulted, they also experienced the trauma that others in their family, clan or village suffered or that they witnessed. Moreover, hearing of assault and traumatic experiences, either across generations through family stories or as researchers, also had an impact. Those interviewed experienced the hopelessness of their cause, however righteous, as trauma. Displacement, the loss of place and history, was another source of trauma. Being forced to interact with and adapt to the ways of others—even the ‘other’—contributed to traumatisation.

In Nagaland, the research team found that given the nature of Naga society, trauma was experienced by the village collectively, and people were hesitant to identify themselves individually, as if to suggest their own experience was somehow worse. Naga women drew sustenance from the support system provided by their traditional structures and institutions like the church. Whether or not women knew about the different laws that governed their region, they spoke to the brutality of the Indian security forces.

“All women respondents had stated that conflicts had affected all aspects of daily normal life whether they were socio-economic, health, education, etc. People cutting across class, clans, villages, gender, age, etc., had suffered tremendously over the years due to different conflicts… There were also many discords and tensions in society. There were divorces and broken homes. Conflicts had generated an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion as well as fear.” (page 27)

What the researchers stress is the need for counseling and legal services and for education about the same, so people could seek help. This is borne out by what they learnt in Assam too, except that the research team adds the need to generate and make available livelihood and educational opportunities, the absence of which was identified here as leading to trauma. Timely relief and rehabilitation was also stressed. Where Naga society already has such platforms, it is recommended in Assam that, “Women committees must be formed in conflict affected villages which check any sort of physical or structural violence against women and human trafficking issues.” (page 44)

The importance of this study is two-fold. First, it is based on really sound field research—thoughtful conversations sensitively reported. The report is full of stories that the research team heard and they are the heart of this report, bringing to life the experience of multiple generations living with a conflict that is sometimes with the state and sometimes (or at once) internecine. The research team has used photographs, film and research notes to capture and communicate the experience of women in Nagaland and Assam. This is an unusually comprehensive effort. Second, Nagaland and Assam are important Indian states, but even so, underreported and understudied in the Indian context. A project that begins to look at the marginalized in a marginalized region thus acquires tremendous importance for researchers and policy-makers, but also for other citizens of the same state. And so does the multimedia documentation and communication effort. The research team explicitly points to the limited scope of this project and states that more studies of this sort are needed; they are absolutely right. In the meanwhile, it is important to make this study widely known. Again, it may be accessed at the C-NES website:

The good news about post-conflict societies

July 8, 2011

Tucked away in the 2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women report is some good news about how changing values are changing the prospects for women in societies that are crawling out of conflict into post-conflict transitions.

The impact of conflict on women is now well-documented. First, the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war cuts across time, place and culture. Second, women disproportionately shoulder the burden of displacements and other breakdown of normal life. This makes them more vulnerable to domestic violence, sexual violence outside the home, trafficking and other exploitation.

This report points to and maps the evolution of thinking about this question in international law and it reflects that thinking.

Unanimity seems to have emerged that sexual violence as a part of conflict is unacceptable. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognizes rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other forms of sexual violence as crimes against humanity. The five United Nations Security Council Resolutions that deal with women in conflict echo this thinking. 1325 mandates including women in peace processes and transitional arrangements. 1820 calls for prevention of sexual violence and an end to impunity for sexual crimes. 1888, 1889 and 1960 reinforce these two, calling for measures and precautions to be undertaken by conflict parties, governments and international organizations.

The 2011-2012 Progress of the World’s Women report points to some good tidings. First, this changing international legal environment means that sexual crimes have been prosecuted and convictions have followed in post-conflict trials in at least three contexts, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. It is still a challenge to get women to testify and many obstacles remain from logistical issues like childcare and financial assistance for legal counsel to having more women judges preside in such courts.

Second, as women have been mandatorily included in peace processes, a variety of arrangements have emerged that address their concerns, take cognizance of their conflict experiences and provide for their presence in the politics of post-conflict societies. The report points out (page 100) that where on an average women made up 14% of parliamentary membership in non post-conflict settings, in post-conflict settings they make up 27%. Indeed, the country with the largest percentage of women in Parliament (51%) is Rwanda. Correspondingly, the report shows that 93% of post-conflict constitutions include anti-discrimination causes (as opposed to 61% non post-conflict) and 21% mention violence against women (as opposed to 10%).

As the report states:

“The post-conflict moment opens up the possibility of reframing the political and civic leadership, with women at the centre. Women’s participation in the design of all post-conflict justice mechanisms, in peace processes and in political decision-making is essential for ensuring the post-conflict State advances women’s rights and justice for all.” (page 101)

Progress of the World’s Women: UN Women’s first report

July 8, 2011

UN Women, which came into existence just last March, has released its first report, the Progress of the World’s Women. Acknowledging a century of progress, from 1911 when only two countries granted women the right to vote, the report focuses on women’s legal and political rights and their ability to access justice.

The report marks a return to thinking about institutional arrangements rather than civil society or market-led initiatives. It culminates with a set of recommendations “to make justice systems work for women” based on successful initiatives across the world. Repeatedly, the report makes the case for law as a vehicle of social change and demonstrates the positive impact that including more women in the decision-making process can have.

This remarkable report deserves to be read because it actually serves well as a brief history of the struggle for women’s rights across the world. For instance, it includes a section describing landmark court judgments in this struggle. It works not just as a policy brief but also as a secondary text to a class on global feminism or social change.

The report may be accessed at The website is also set up in a very user-friendly manner to allow parts of the report to be accessed and used individually.

Women and Peace: A Special Issue

April 22, 2011

Seminar’s March 2011 issue theme was “Women and Peace.” The problem statement of the monthly symposium states:

DESPITE the voluminous literature on war and conflict, both its causes as also the frameworks underlying various peace accords and post-conflict resolution and reconstruction strategies, there appears significant reluctance to factor in women’s specific experiences, as also their orientations, capacities and skills in facilitating a transition towards a more just and durable peace. Not only is it rare to come across women playing a significant role in peace parleys and accord-making, their concerns and suggestions too are usually relegated to the margins. The episodic nod to the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security notwithstanding, analysis of peace accords and subsequent processes reveals, globally, that this arena remains a male preserve and little has changed on the ground.

The experience in South Asia, be it Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, India’s insurgency affected North East, to name a few, reveals a disturbing tendency to invisibilize women and their concerns. The situation post communal riots in cities or in the Maoist affected regions of Central India is no different. Everywhere, even as it is recognized that women (and children) are the worst affected, little effort is made at addressing their major concerns – reducing the ever-present threat of sexual violence and rape, generating jobs and income earning opportunities, meeting the needs of health and education, and so on, though it is now well accepted that an enhanced status of women is central to family and community welfare. The result is not only flawed and failed accords – often little more than power sharing arrangements between ‘armed elites’, mostly men – but reflects a deeper failure to address the underlying causes of conflict. To state more sharply, processes which marginalize and invisibilize women cannot become the basis for a durable, just and democratic peace.

…This issue of Seminar brings together experiences and reflections from multiple contexts in an effort to visibilize the role of women and their impact on peace processes.

Contributors include Devaki Jain, Reema Nanavaty, Rita Manchanda and this blogger.

War and accountability in Sri Lanka: Leaked report

Posted on April 16, 2011

This week, leading Sri Lankan daily, The Island, carried excerpts from a leaked report on human rights violations in the last stages of war and post-war Sri Lanka.

Report of the UNSG’s panel of experts on accountability in SL, The Island, April 15, 2011.

The report states:

The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government of Sri Lanka. The Government says it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties”. In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.

This is not news to those familiar with reports from war-affected areas by organizations like the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna).

Commentary so far from Colombo:

The leaked UN war crimes report: Key points and context,, April 16, 2011.
DBS Jeyaraj, Report on Sri Lanka by the Ban Ki-Moon Advisory Panel, Daily Mirror, April 16, 2011.

Talking about women and peace in Kalinga

March 24, 2011

At the foot of Asoka’s edict marking his renunciation of war, scholars and activists met to discuss women, war and peace in the Indian context.



Less than ten kilometres from Bhubaneswar is Dhaulagiri, site of an Asokan edict associated with his renunciation of war. The legend is that Asoka was the archetypal ambitious, ruthless and even fratricidal prince whose brutal wars savaged their victims. The war with Kalinga was no exception. Asoka, moved to remorse at the sight of the destruction he had wrought, is said to have foresworn violence. The Dhauli, Jaugada and Tosali edicts speak of this in moving words:

“All men are my children, and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men.” (1st Separate Rock Edict at Dhauli and Jaugada)

“If the unconquered peoples on my borders ask what is my will, they should be made to understand that this is my will with regard to them—the king desires that they should have no trouble on his account, should trust in him, and should have in their dealings with him only happiness and no sorrow. They should understand that the king will forgive them as far as they can be forgiven, and that through him they should follow Dhamma and gain this world and the next.
For this purpose I instruct you, that having done so I may discharge my debt to them, by making known to you my will, my resolve and my firm promise. By these actions, my work will advance, and they will be reassured and will realize that the king is like a father, and that he feels for them as for himself, for they are like his own children to him. My couriers and special officers will be in contact with you, instructing you and making known to you my will, my resolve, and my firm promise. For you are able to give the frontier people confidence, welfare, and happiness in this world and the next. Doing this you will reach heaven and help me discharge my debt to my people.
This inscription has been engraved here for this purpose – that the Officers shall at all times attend to the conciliation of the people of the frontiers and to promoting Dhamma among them.” (2nd Separate Rock Edict at Tosali)


In Bhubaneswar, earlier this month, under the aegis of Sansristi, a small group of activists, writers and scholars met to discuss UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its relevance in the Indian context.

A word about UNSCR 1325: This resolution’s most well-known provision mandates greater participation of women in all parts of the peace process. But 1325 may be read also as a rubric for a series of UN Security Council Resolutions passed in the decade that has followed: 1820, 1888 and 1889. Between them, these resolutions affirm the following:
1. Women and girls experience conflict in some unique ways and this needs to be factored into peacemaking.
2. More women need to be part of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes and provision must be made for their continued participation in post-conflict dispensations.
3. Rape and sexual violence in conflict situations is a crime against humanity.
4. Impunity for rape and sexual violence must end and these crimes must be exempt from amnesty provisions.
5. There is a connection between making rape and sexual violence punishable in conflict contexts and the existing local provisions and attitudes towards them; therefore, efforts must also be made to reform and strengthen local laws and their enforcement where gender violence is concerned.
6. There needs to be cooperation and consultation between UN agencies and operations, Member States and civil society on these matters.

One objective of the conference was to assess how 1325 applies to the Indian context and how it can be used to promote peace. The two-day discussion highlighted three concerns.

The first and fundamental one was the question of drawing lines around ‘conflict.’ What is a conflict area and what is not? What sorts of conflicts fall under the 1325 ambit? The policy-maker’s response is likely to draw a narrowly defined circle. The activist’s instinct is to include the gamut of conflicts and struggles in society. The scholar’s is to recognize the challenges inherent in both views. Participants also saw the existence of the 1325 resolutions as an opening to push the Indian government to recognize the existence of conflict situations that it has been inclined to minimize.

The second concern relates to increasing the participation of women in the security sector. The discussion was predicated on the existence of a natural connection between the women’s movement and peace movement; nevertheless the idea of including token women who may not make a substantive contribution to the peace process was raised. Why don’t we know more about those who can contribute constructively to peace-building? They are out there, but media, scholars and government seem oblivious. The conference participants did not debate military participation; this has not been as much of an issue in India as it is in the U.S.

The third concern related to gender violence in conflict contexts. Many of the participants described the incidence of rape and sexual violence and other human rights violations affecting women. But this is another way in which it becomes hard to draw the line between “conflict” and “peace.” For women and girls who live with the threat of violence everyday in their homes, schools, workplaces and streets, there is not much difference between the two situations.

The conference discussions wove around these three intertwined concerns, identifying India’s current membership of the Security Council and its quest for a permanent seat as an unusual opportunity for advocacy.