A wider perspective

Making a case for the inclusion of women in the South Asian peace processes

In wars and conflicts between various nation-states, women often become the embattled site on which ideologies of nations, class, and religion, old and new forms of patriarchal control clash and collude, signifying a nexus between nationalism and gendered violence. Women abducted and raped on both sides during the 1947 partition and the desolated 'Birangonas' (read raped women) of Bangladesh 1971 liberation war are not a distant memory. Yet they are rarely allowed any agency. The national security discourse in post-colonial South Asia has denied women's participation in national security issues and peace-processes and the discourse remains largely state-centric, elitist, and masculine.

Through years, feminist theoreticians and peace researchers have advocated a wider notion of human security from the perspective of women. As women make up a disproportionate share of economically disadvantaged, they are likely to be more sensitive to the cost of a militaristic foreign policy. However, women should not be viewed only as victims of conflict. Women's knowledge of their inferior and excluded position gives them special insights into the structure of unequal relations at the root of the conflict. Integrating women in the peace process — both formal and informal — offers a more accurate and comprehensive basis for any conflict analysis and peace intervention by highlighting the different roles and needs of women and men during and after conflict.

To diversify the voices in decision making, UNSC adopted 'Resolution 1325' on 'Women, Peace and Security' in 2000. Since then, many states and international organisations have worked together to include women in the peace-making processes. Yet, globally, women remain significantly underrepresented. This essay addresses the rationale that underpins the importance of having women in formal and informal peace processes, particularly in South Asia where military power continues to be deployed against disempowered people.

Women and men have a differential role in situations of peace and conflicts. However, the connection between women and peace needs to be understood in the context of prevailing unequal power relations embedded in South Asian societies. The cultural argument associating women with peace and men with war is considered fallacious as it is constructed on the notions of femininities and masculinities in patriarchal societies and reaffirms the structural inequality between men and women. Cynthia Cockburn, a feminist scholar and peace activist observed that "if women have a distinctive angle on peace, it is not due to women being 'nurturing'. It seems more to do with knowing oppression when we see it". Empirical evidence from South Asia, of women's involvement in Maoist insurgency in Nepal and LTTE in Sri Lanka, suggests that there is nothing inherently peaceful about women. Women should be included in the peace-processes because patriarchal notions of power, peace, and security cannot be understood without comprehending women's experiences, needs, and responses.

Peace processes which do not involve women, lack substance, and may jeopardise their very sustainability. Evidence suggests that peace processes with extensive female engagement are more likely to be durable over time. Carmel Roulston, a peace researcher observed that women's peacebuilding efforts laid the foundation for a future where the two warring groups can learn to accommodate each other and to express their differences without aggression. Commenting on women's narrative of peace activism in Kashmir, Naga conflict, Nepal, MQM, and Sri Lanka, Rita Manchanda says "There is a pattern of women unthinkingly, rushing forward to shield the men; blocking the roads to prevent runs from being taken away, standing surely for arrested boys. Getting hostages released, defusing tensions, and reaching across fault lines, and stopping factional violence.

The underlying understanding of women's participation is based on a continuum of women's agency. Women play an important role in formal peace processes by widening the range of topics discussed at the negotiating table. Evidence suggests that the chances of a final agreement being reached were much higher in cases where women exercised strong influence than in those cases where women's influence was weak or absent in practice. Women are strong influencers as they push for more concrete and fundamental reforms (e.g., demanding changes to laws governing healthcare, land ownership, or inheritance), transitional justice issues (e.g., addressing any gender-based violence and human rights violations), and post-conflict reconstruction concerns. Women's involvement in peacekeeping operations has also been found to increase the credibility of forces, thus ensuring a less authoritarian engagement with citizens.

However, increasing participation of the women at the negotiation table is not enough. Long-simmering disputes require looking beyond formal negotiation rooms, to include women in civil society efforts to forge peace by engaging them in local conflict resolutions. While nearly three-fourths of identifiable informal peace processes have clear evidence of the involvement of women's groups, their presence in higher echelons of formal peace processes is abysmally low. Hence, there is a clear need to involve women at different levels of peace processes to ensure the achievement of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), specifically SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions.

The writer is an MA, Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Views expressed are personal

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