International: Peace work - women, armed conflict and negotiation

South Asia Citizen's Wire
This book discusses the experiences of women peacemakers in areas of conflicts and the role they can play in promoting peace.
Ritu Menon writes on how women's peace activism can play a positive mediatory role in conflict-torn areas.
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. - Walter Benjamin

The general failure of states across our region to reach politically negotiated, peaceful resolutions of the conflicts in their countries, has had one unexpected outcome. It has propelled NGOs, civil society groups (including businessmen and industrialists), professionals, academics, women's organizations and sundry peace activists into being more proactive on peace. Together they have initiated a range of activities, both within their countries and across borders, that include everything from research and dialogue to track-two diplomacy and actual relief work.

Men make war and women make peace. This has the kind of cliched associations that are difficult to shake off, perhaps because there is a kernel of truth in the statement. Women are generally supposed to be nurturing and caring, naturally maternal and therefore predisposed towards peace, just as men are supposed to be the opposite. Women are more open to mediation, to negotiation and compromise because, it has been suggested, they are obliged to carry on the business of survival and sustenance when all social and economic supports have broken down, and they are often obliged to do so in the absence of their menfolk.

So they are more likely to be found caring for the sick or wounded, in relief and rehabilitation and in rebuilding communities than carrying guns and going into combat. Because they are also among the worst sufferers in any situation of conflict, armed or otherwise, they are believed to be more inclined towards peace.

Feminist analysis has tried to move away from biological essentialist and culturalist arguments in favour of women's tolerance and non-violence, and suggested instead, that "if women have a distinctive angle in peace it is not due to their being 'nurturing' but more to do, perhaps, with knowing oppression". Their historical exclusion from structures of power, both in the private and public domains, as well as their experience of subjugation gives them a stake in working for peace and justice - or a just peace - as well as in keeping democracy alive, for it is only through social justice and democracy that they will be able to realize their right to equality.

According to this logic, a feminist culture of peace fundamentally criticizes unequal structures of domination and is built on learning to live with difference, without aggression.

I would like to suggest an additional factor that may be at work in women's peace activism, and this is their particular, gendered experience of violence, in war as well as in supposed peace. As recent empirical work the world over has shown, for women, weapons of war are much the same as weapons of peace; those who wield them in the battlefield or on the front often return home and turn the violence inwards. Women have first-hand knowledge of the connected forms of domestic, communal and political violence that stretches from the home to the street and into the battlefield.

I have already spoken of this with regard to partition violence in India in 1947. Similarly, studies of post-Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Ireland and, closer home, Kashmir, Jaffna, Karachi, Dhaka and north-east India, demonstrate the links between militarization, misogyny and domestic violence. Rita Manchanda quotes Palestinian MP Dalal Salmeh as saying, "The violence used against Palestinian men has made them violent at home, in the work place and in their free time."

A number of testimonies by women from Kashmir and the north-east echo this observation as do those of women living in the crossfire of the MQM (Muhajir Qaumi Movement) conflict in Karachi.

It is the combined experience of oppression and violence, plus the responsibility for survival and sustenance during and in the aftermath of conflict that, I believe, provides the strongest impetus to women's peace-making. Parveena Ahangar's search for her missing son in Kashmir eventually led to the formation of the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and to a cry for collective justice. The refusal of the women of Kunan-Poshpora to remain silent about their rape by the Indian security forces led to the highlighting of military atrocities.

The public cursing of the Mothers' Front in Sri Lanka forced the government into acknowledging its role in the disappearance of thousands of young JVPers. The Women in Black, the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo, the Jaffna Mothers' Front take their private sorrow and make it public, thus not only radicalizing the personal, radicalizing even motherhood, but shaming the institutional and authoritarian.

As Rita Manchanda says, "Women's construction of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of conflict is a critical factor in women turning their backs on it. In Kashmir, a turning point in the armed struggle came when Kashmiri women began to shut the door on militants."

But is there such a thing as women's practice of peace activism? Do we 'do peace' differently from other peace activists, and if so, are these alternative practices effective in the long run? Can they, for instance, work across borders, national as well as regional?

As with economic activity in South Asia, in peace work too, women belong in the informal sector, the informal spaces of politics, which by its very nature affects our practice. The ritualized cursing of the Mothers' Front or the sustained protest by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, indeed the public mobilization of motherhood in the cause of peace and as a direct challenge to the state are quintessentially 'womanist' forms of peace activism.

Bearing witness, as happens in the World Courts on Violence Against Women and in various tribunals on violence or other crimes, is not womanist in the same way but it has radicalized the hitherto marginal and powerless, and forced public and institutional notice outside the traditional arenas of such activity - the court, the police station, the executive or the bureaucracy.

Dialogue and networking have been among the most effective strategies used by the global women's movement, in working for social change as well as in raising awareness. Dialogue that bridges difference and is predicated on respecting that difference is at the other end of the spectrum from what Ranabir Samaddar calls 'maximalist friendship'. "Such a friendship," he says, "like cold war friendship depends on maximum enmity, and then, maximum hostility." Far from being conducive to peace, it kills understanding; the alternative to this is accommodating difference which, more than solidarity, requires a politics of understanding; and it is this politics of understanding that I believe, women in the region are trying to forge.

Cynthia Cockburn, describing a few notable examples of cross-border peace initiatives by women in Ireland, Israel and Bosnia Herzegovina, identifies six characteristics that she believes made the difference between the women's efforts, and others. They are: (i) affirming difference; (ii) non-closure of identity; (iii) reducing polarization by emphasizing other differences; (iv) an acknowledgment of injustice; (v) defining the agenda; and (vi) group process. Again, these may not be essentially womanist ways of doing peace, but they have been worked at successfully by the three groups she studied, and they are clearly different from conventional CBMs, two-tracks, and other people-to-people dialogues. Cockburn also draws attention to the importance of recognizing what she calls "the space between us" in peace work - that social and political space in which we separately live and work in order to craft a politics of understanding.

It is not easy to do.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the Jaffna Mothers' Front and the Sinhala Mothers' Front were unable to cross the ethnic divide; nor could the Naga Mothers Association make common cause with the Watsu Mongdung in north-eastern India. Occasionally, groups may come together on specific issues, as national women's groups did in Bangladesh with the Hill Women's Federation, but they parted company on issues of national identity. One instance of successful bridge-building, however, is that of the MQM and the Women's Action Forum in Karachi.

But the crucial point is that women's fledgling attempts at making peace have highlighted the necessity of transparency and the democratic process in any peace accord or negotiation that will endure. The inclusion of 'marginal' and hitherto unheard voices in this process, painstaking and protracted though it may be, may actually have a better chance of succeeding than that reached throughforce or subjugation.

It may be, as Rita Manchanda says, what "makes the difference between the survival or collapse of otherwise binary and closeted peace processes between armed groups and the state".

Radhika Coomaraswamy is the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, Sri Lanka, and director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo.

Dilrukshi Fonseka has been programme coordinator at the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies, Sri Lanka.

Ritu Menon is co-founder of Kali for Women and an independent scholar who has written widely on women.

Excerpted with permission from Peace Work: Women, Armed Conflict and Negotiation
By Radhika Coomaraswamy & Dilrukshi Fonseka

Women Unlimited an associate of Kali for Women, K-36 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016
ISBN 81-88965-08-1
278pp. Indian Rs375