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 fragile thread of life: H1N1 and other perils

August 9, 2009

The H1N1 virus begins to claim lives in India. The public health crisis blots out all other concerns, at least on television news channels.


If an illustration were needed that public health crises create tremendous anxiety and insecurity, the coverage on Indian television of the spread of the H1N1 (swine flu) virus would be it! As India’s first H1N1 epidemic casualties were recorded, panic spread—in the newsrooms, if not in neighbourhoods. Schools closed. Door to door searches have begun. Surgical masks are flying off shelves. And in an interesting precedent for federal India, one state has issued an advisory against travel to another. As with the plague in the late 1990s, and avian flu and chikungunya more recently, the combination of a highly infectious disease and a public health system that strains to provide for millions are frightening in a very immediate way.

The epidemic draws our attention back to simple things that we keep forgetting:

1.The failure everywhere to invest in universally accessible health care.
2. The inequitable trade and intellectual property regimes that make life-saving drugs unaffordable and inaccessible to most around the world.
3. If people are not healthy, everything that a state secures is lost.

All the sophisticated theories and doctrines we write about security do not alter the Malthusian-Hobbesian realities of those living in societies with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS; of those living in places where a failure to assure sanitation and clean drinking water means thousands still die of diarrhoea; of the embarrassing number of mothers who still die in childbirth; of the schoolchildren who are proving most susceptible to this new virus.

At times like this, the attention the policy-making world pays to traditional issues really does seem like tilting at windmills.

Some perspectives on H1N1 and public health in India follow but interestingly, far fewer op-eds and feature articles than the panic on television news would suggest:

H1N1 and the have-nots, Hindustan Times editorial, August 5, 2009.
Kounteya Sinha, Explosion of secondary H1N1 infection in India, Times of India, August 9, 2009.
and by me: Pulse Readings: Public health and security, Infochange India, July 2009.

Why aren’t India’s leading columnists and social scientists not taking a greater interest in this issue? That important question leads to another much bigger one: who sets the discursive agenda in public affairs? Probably not those who cannot access Tamiflu.

I will continue to add links to resources that use this crisis for broader reflections on policy and security.
Ila Patnaik, Find the side effects, Indian Express, August 10, 2009.
Manish Kakkar and K. Srinath Reddy, Pinning and tackling swine flu, Indian Express, August 12, 2009.
Meeting a pandemic challenge, Hindu, August 12, 2009.