'Women as Catalysts for Peace and Stability' - A perspective from India

Speech made by Archana Kapoor at World Women's Forum at Seoul, KoreaNestled atop Nilanchal Hills in Guwahati, capital of India's Eastern state of Assam, is the temple of Kamakhya. Unlike other temples that are found at nearly all street corners in our deeply religious country, there is no deity in Kamakhya. Instead, there is a stone replica of a vagina, kept in the dark interiors of the temple where blood of the sacrificial animals is offered. This tantric temple is the source of power (Shakti) for many of its adherents. Kamakhya is a manifestation of an interesting strain in Hindu religion where women goddesses and their symbols have been blessing men who go to war. Invariably, these deities provide religious sanction and moral seal on much of the violence men have heaped on fellow men in many parts of Hindu India.  Interestingly, this temple is located in a region, which has seen bloodshed and human rights violation over the last many years.These goddesses of War stand on the right side of goodness and some of them like the goddess Kali is shown riding a lion with a spear plunged deep in the demons heart. We have a goddess Laxmi for wealth and prosperity and goddess Saraswati for knowledge. Mercifully they are peace loving.The purpose behind explaining the importance of goddesses in Hindu pantheon is not to show my religious leanings or highlight the determinism that has prevented Indians from ushering societal change, but to state that in India, women are not submissive. In fact they provide the moral compass for the Indian society.Women participated actively in India's freedom movement against the British colonialists and suffered the same indignities as their protesting male brethren. History bears witness that many ordinary women- housewives, young students, daily wagers-- were at the vanguard of the non-violent movement led by Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Displaying extraordinary courage they took baton blows on their bodies whenever the British Police used violence to suppress their peaceful protest. In many ways, the non-violent nature of our freedom movement contributed in laying the ground rules of dissent in our democratic polity giving space for women to play a legitimate role in airing their voice against injustice. India would be one of the very few democracies in the world where women occupy such important positions, without attracting rancor or the proverbial glass ceiling that many of our sisters experience in other parts of the world.Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was called Goddess Durga by her male detractors when she took a very considered decision to attack Pakistan against the untold atrocities that the government of the day was perpetrating on its people. Needlessly to say, Gandhi was successful in her courageous enterprise. The respect accorded to her continues even today. Now we have a woman President in Pratibha Patil, it is a woman again who heads the ruling coalition, Sonia Gandhi - despite the fact that she is of foreign origin. There are three powerful women chief ministers who represent different political parties and head socially disparate provinces. There are also scores of women who occupy top positions in media, judiciary and the corporate world.A lot of it in India could be achieved due to our enlightened gender just freedom movement and the fierce commitment of our founding fathers to democracy. This year we complete sixty years of our independence and we can say that there has been a lot that has been achieved in the realm of women empowerment. It is possible for women to do what they want. They can occupy political posts at all the levels- beginning from the village unit—right to the very top. This has been facilitated by policies of positive discrimination pursued by successive governments. At the village level, 33 percent elected representatives have to be women. A similar kind of reservation policy, which has been resisted by the status quo, would find expression in the national parliament.Women can also join the armed forces and fly aircrafts. There are thousands who are in policing duties. Thousands of young women are giving meaning to India's IT success by working as programmers, knowledge workers etc.As I repeat again women could do all this and more primarily due to the fact that India gender just constitution and its democratic institutions provided women an environment where they could actualize their potential. In politics they were helped by the compulsion of the political parties to enlarge their constituencies and that meant respecting the rising aspirations of women. While the exact impact of women at the top is not visible in many of the key policy initiatives, it is a matter of time when it gets known. Before, I move on to the major concerns of the seminar, I would state that women leaders display greater sensitivity to human rights, but on other occasions conduct themselves like men.In areas where there is no rule of law and democratic institutions have been subverted due to years of insurgency, women are the worst sufferers. They are victims and spoils of protracted tribal wars or army's high handedness. The state of Manipur in the same region as the Kamakhya temple is a case in point.A beautiful, verdant state sharing its border with Myanmar, Manipur has been a scene of insurgency with local tribes wanting independence from the country. During my last trip to Manipur, I realized what it was to live in the shadow of the gun. Everywhere I went I found gun toting troops. There was no right to privacy and troops would even watch over women bathing in public baths. Manipuri were getting mauled in the crossfire of suspicion between Indian army and the militants.Most of the time their concern was to save their own lives and that of their loved ones. I was a witness to a mother beseeching army men to leave his teenage son, who had been whisked away on charges of being a terrorist. In this un-winnable war against terror there is no rule of law and young men and women are routinely killed to satisfy the blood lust of the modern state to secure the chimera of stability. So incensed were the women of Manipur by the crimes heaped on them that a group of activists took off their clothes and marched to the army headquarters with a banner demanding that the army come and rape them. Bizarre this form of protest may have sounded, but it shook the collective conscience of the country and built up support for the abrogation of the draconian armed forces act. This protest raises fundamental questions about the role women can play in fostering peace and stability in conflict racked areas. Did the extreme step by women brought stability to the place or incite a seething rage in the minds of the young to take revenge? In Manipur as well as number of violence affected parts of India, these incidents create a spiral of retribution that destroys families and drives young boys in the arms of terrorists and secessionists.Many suicide bombers, in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, if media reports are anything to go by, take blessings from their mother before taking their own lives. And many of these women allow their loved ones to go and take or give up their lives as they realize that there is no justice and no hope of living a life of dignity.In Indian part of Kashmir, where a secessionist movement has been going on for many years, rule of law is routinely a casualty. Furthermore, there have been large periods when democracy has been put on hold and powers of life and death have been given to the armed forces. In these circumstances, women have taken the major brunt of the State's attempt to maintain peace in this beautiful valley. I am not really commenting on who is right or wrong there, but thousands of women have been raped or kidnapped by both the armed forces and the militants. There has been no forum for many years where these women can get succour or justice for the crimes committed against them. Civil rights group have been bewildered by the extent of crimes against women in Kashmir.In Sri Lanka, where I spent some time documenting the state of women in a conflict environment, I found women caught between the cross fire of the government troops and militants. Young children are brutally snatched away by army and militant recruiters to give substance to "boy soldiers". There are thousands of mothers who wail silently for their children, whose innocence has been lost due to protracted conflict.But one must remember violence in armed conflict situations is very different from the one women have to experience in every day life in India. Absence of rule of law makes it difficult for women to realize their full potential as they are always bothered about their physical safety. Incidentally, in our country where the rule of law is the poorest, the status of women too is the worst. In north Indian states their participation in formal sector is far lower than in south India where crime rate is lower. In Southern states again, female literacy is highest and majority of them step out of the comfort and protection of their homes to take up jobs.On the contrary, in Mewat, a Muslim predominant area where I work, girls are married off at the age of 12-13 years of age as parents fear that they would not be able to protect her after she attains puberty. Due to this each woman has 8 to10 children. A heavy price an overpopulated country has to pay for its poor law and order record. This is the situation in a number of villages all over the country.It is only in a democratic environment where there are institutional mechanism to redress grievances that women can have representation in politics and thus influence policy. In India there is an attempt to correct the imbalance with 33 % reservation for women at the level of local self-government. But it may take time for the women to actually understand their powers and their potential to become effective leaders and come out of the shadow of their father, brothers and husband.  In large part of feudal and poor India women are victims of a systemic internal violence - which means that they may not be beaten up or outraged but there is a pall of fear that hangs over many communities where women are penalized if they cross the boundary laid down by the men folk.Although India has many women occupying top positions, the real change would come once democratic institutions are strengthened at the grass root level. There is a limit to what the top down intervention can do. To sum up, the only way transformation can take place in a poor country is, if the governments ruthlessly enforce the rule of law and give security and dignity to women. It is only in such an environment that women could be the harbingers for restoring peace and stability in a hate and conflict laden environment.