Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

October 6, 2011

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111bearing_witness/

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: http://www.c-nes.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/The-final-report-of-HBF.pdf

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Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai

July 20, 2011

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111once_more_with_feeling_hillary_clinton_visits_chennai/

Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.

I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.

And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.

Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?

She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).

Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.

Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.

And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.

Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.

The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.

In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.

In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.

Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.

The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.

Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.

So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.

What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?

Other notes:

• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!

Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

PS: The State Department’s account is here. Full text of the speech is here.

The good news about post-conflict societies

July 8, 2011

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111the_good_news_about_post-conflict_societies/

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

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111progress_of_the_worlds_women/

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 http://progress.unwomen.org/ 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

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111women_and_peace_a_special_issue/

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.

Talking about women and peace in Kalinga

March 24, 2011

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111women_and_peace/

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.

***

I

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)

II

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.

Truth, Justice and Protocol

January 20, 2011

http://asiasecurity.macfound.org/blog/entry/111truth_justice_and_protocol/

This long post disentangles the web of questions raised about gender and international relations following the allegations of domestic violence made against a diplomat.

***

A quiet afternoon in a quiet London neighbourhood is shattered by the sounds of a scuffle and screams. A woman seems to be in distress, and when she emerges, neighbours see that she is bruised and bleeding. The police investigates but they run up against a wall built to protect the messenger from the arbitrary actions of her/his host: diplomatic immunity.

This incident which occurred on December 11, 2010 but which made news headlines more than a month later has once more pointed to the murky equation between gender justice and international relations.

The British authorities requested that the Indian diplomat’s immunity be revoked. The Indian government refused. The High Commission spokesperson was quoted as saying: “We are carefully looking into the incident. It involves sensitive and personal issues pertaining to individuals. It is premature to make any further comment at this stage. It is now expected that this matter will be resolved between husband and wife It is to their mutual satisfaction.” It took a month but the diplomat has finally been recalled, along with his family. The catch is that in the interim, his wife has disappeared along with their son.

Binay Singh & Pervez Iqbal Siddiqui, Diplomat Verma’s parents swear by his innocence, Times News Network, January 20, 2011.

The particulars of this story are less important than the issues it raises, and this post tries to disentangle each of these from the knotty discussion that is taking place.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence?

In one of the television discussions last week, a former diplomat kept citing other instances, primarily drunk and reckless driving, where immunity had not been waived so an alleged offender could be tried locally. He went on to say that the incident which has triggered this controversy was just about a Christmas tree, thereby infuriating other panelists. He conceded that had the diplomat been a serial rapist or killer, a waiver of immunity might be considered.

Is domestic violence a lesser offence than all of these? The answer really is no. A drunken driving incident could be an aberration; battery and assault within the family seldom are. There is always a long-term pattern of abuse, and it stems from power-play and the need to control. It does not happen because of a Christmas tree. Or any of the other violence triggers that researchers have found—delayed meals, perceived laziness of the spouse, too much salt, too little salt, etc. In fact, even the Christmas tree story would raise a red flag to those who work in this area: the issue reportedly was that the wife had refused the husband’s offer to buy a tree for reasons of economy but accepted a gift from her relatives, and this offended him. Enough said.

And because domestic violence is seldom a one-off occurrence, chances are the record of abuse and violence would equal that of a serial rapist or killer even though the number of victims is much smaller. So if the number of instances of violence is the threshold that decides whether something is a greater or lesser offence, wouldn’t most domestic violence perpetrators qualify?

How many reported (and unreported) incidents of domestic violence, or other gender violence, are to be tolerated before they attain the threshold required for immunity to be considered?

Is diplomatic immunity never to be waived?

This is not the first time local law enforcement has rued diplomatic immunity. It is actually a regular grievance for police in any city with a large diplomatic presence. The army of UN-accredited diplomats in New York park anywhere and don’t pay fines for it, and it doesn’t take a long stay in the city or any research to hear about it! Abuse of domestic workers who are brought in by diplomats is another issue that human rights activists have been highlighting. This can hardly be the first-ever case of domestic violence reported in the history of diplomacy.

What is diplomatic immunity? International law exempts select officials and representatives of foreign governments from the jurisdiction of local governments and laws; this is called “diplomatic immunity.” The idea was really to protect the messenger: “the channels of diplomatic communication by exempting diplomats from local jurisdiction so that they can perform their duties with freedom, independence, and security.” (See E-Diplomat) The rules for how diplomatic immunity works are set up by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. The foreign government may waive immunity and the host government may declare a diplomat ‘persona non grata’ without explanation, so a diplomat really cannot take that status for granted.
Where the conflict arises in this case is actually in the reading of the offence. What we can surmise from the conflict over waiving the Indian diplomat’s immunity, is that while British authorities appear to regard the allegation of domestic violence as a serious enough offence to warrant a waiver, the Indian response has been paternalistic and dismissive. This raises questions about what would happen if the couple returned home to an Indian investigation.

Salil Tripathi, Immunity from Justice, LiveMint.com, January 19, 2011.
IANS, Indian UN diplomat recalled after incident on flight, Economic Times, January 19, 2011.

An Indian investigation

There are two questions that stare us in the face on this count. First, how will the case be tried in India if the evidence and witnesses are elsewhere? Second, what is the track record of gender violence trials in India?

There are probably ways around the first, such as travelling investigation officers who can interview witnesses. Perhaps the British police who visited the site initially can share their evidence and reports.

The harder question is really the second; it’s also an embarrassing question. The number of cases registered under the relevant section of the Indian Penal Code has risen steadily between 2005 and 2009, from 58,319 to 89,546, but when you search for the conviction rate, the numbers vary but there is consensus that the rate is very, very low.

National Crime Records Bureau, “Crimes against Women,” Crimes in India 2009, Delhi, 2010.
Madhu Kishwar, Laws against domestic violence: Underused or Abused? Manushi, Issue 120, September-October 2000.
Rashme Sehgal, Delays do not bode well for Domestic Violence Bill, InfoChange India, March 2006.

The reasons are many—from the reluctance of a family to pursue and press charges even if they filed a complaint in the first instance, to the pressure of the extended family and community to come to a mediated solution, to the lack of evidence. In spite of this very low conviction rate, there are many in India who complain that those provisions of the law that deal with different kinds of domestic violence are actually mostly misused by women to discredit their husbands and marital families.

Furthermore, in recent years, very high-profile cases of sexual assault have had obstacle-ridden investigations, protracted trials and where there has been conviction and sentencing, the handing out of bail so that the perpetrator more or less walks free. A paternalistic streak in many Indian courtrooms has also sought conciliatory and conservative solutions to the uncomfortable reality of gender violence rather than justice. Rape victims are thus advised to marry the person who raped them. Domestic violence victims are apt to be advised to adjust or consider the family or the children.

It is no wonder that even the most nationalistic Indians find it hard to express confidence in the way this system would respond to domestic violence in the diplomatic enclave. Would the bureaucracy bat for one of its boys? Would the weight of the establishment be on the side of ‘adjusting’ and making peace—not for family, not for the kids, but in the national interest?

The inconvenience of taking women’s rights into consideration

Feminists make a lot of people uncomfortable not because they are wrong but because it is so inconvenient to acknowledge that they are right. So much of international order depends on private-public, inside-outside, domestic-international being posited as binaries. Feminist thinking rejects all these binaries. To take issues of gender justice and women’s rights into account, would force a re-imagining of many of the axiomatic premises of world order.

Female genital mutilation and honour killings are not ‘nice’ issues to raise because they reflect a judgment on the traditional practices of other societies. Human rights standards stop short of others’ cultural practices, whoever defines them and however they are defined. The practices that most communities are very sensitive about are, unsurprisingly, the ones that affect women—FGM, sati, honour killings. The material and ideological origins of the practices are never examined in a reverse kind of orientalism because that sort of rationality can neither be expected of the “other” nor is it comfortable for a liberal to grant. It’s just easier to adopt a cultural relativist stand.

It’s easier to pretend that sexual violence and exploitation do not occur in conflict zones, because facing up to that would show that the best-intentioned military training and socialization do not stop the brutality from spilling over into the interpersonal arena. The words of the intelligence officer who once told me that rape was part of the ‘spoils of war’ have never left me. If you face up to the reality of conflict rape, then you have to look closely at the ethics of this and the morality of that and the many definitions of that particular context.

In this instance, if we affirm that violence against women is wrong, then at least while the allegations against the diplomat are being investigated, it must be clear that this person cannot represent India. If he did, what would that say to the world about the status of women in this country? Not something any country would want said.

Acknowledging that violence occurs within more homes than we know and acknowledging that a life free of violence is an inalienable human right, both simplify and complicate the diplomatic universe. Decision-making is simplified because then immunity waiver or recall, investigation and action must follow. But everything else is complicated because when you blur the line between private and public and say that a diplomat—any person—is as responsible to society for what they do in private as for what they do in public, other boundaries blur as well. Why should local jurisdiction not extend to certain people for what they do in their private lives? Should the dependents of those protected by immunity be deprived of the protection to which others in their situation are entitled, both in home and host countries? Should we now look for ways in which to standardize our laws on these problems so that the victim’s rights are not lost in the “we are better than you” tug-of-war between home and host country’s legal systems?

S Kalyana Ramanathan, Britain forced India’s hand to take back diplomat, Business Standard, January 20, 2011.

In 1989, when Cynthia Enloe first published “Bananas, Beaches and Bases” she wrote about the women in garment factories, sex-workers around bases, migrant domestic workers and diplomatic wives as the invisible characters in the stories about international politics. Zooming in further, twenty-two years later, we see not just the characters we first overlooked but the little complications—domestic violence, exploitation, sexual harassment—that were not earlier visible. When we do, we have to make choices: to ignore these realities and pretend the world still looks like our theories or to rewrite the theories to look like the world we now see; to overlook the things our laws do not account for or to change the law to account for them. What choices will we make?

The simplest possible reading

For all this greyness and complexity, the most important question is a very simple one, I think: Is domestic violence a grave human rights issue? I think it is, and all my positions and response follow from this answer. You?