Venue: Conference Room 1, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, S4, Level B4.
Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.
Speaker: Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, Principal of Lady Shri Ram College, and Founder and Honorary Director of WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace)
Chairperson: Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies
Conventional military notions of security position the nation state as the primary protector of society. Within this conceptualisation of security, the nation state is the primary focus of security concerns. The human security framework, on the other hand, foregrounds people-centred dimensions of security, especially in the area of non-traditional security issues. Gender analysis is a significant part of non-traditional security concerns. It is within this context of a gendered perspective of human security that Dr Meenakshi Gopinath discussed the challenges and opportunities in peacebuilding, drawing on the experience of South Asia. She sought to highlight the concerns and experiences of women, who as a group are disproportionately affected by conflict and displacement.
Dr Gopinath gave a brief account of Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) and its activities, noting that many of the insights at the seminar were drawn from research arising out of WISCOMP projects. Its Annual Transformation Workshops bring together participants from India and Pakistan in a programme of critical inquiry and trust building. The WISCOMP initiative in Kashmir reaches out to women at the grassroots level, assisting them to break cycles of violence stemming from the terrorism and militancy which have marred the region for the last two decades. WISCOMP’s outreach, which is focused on rebuilding the relationships compromised by conflict across the fault lines of ethnicity, region, religion, caste and class, has wider relevance for the South Asian region.
According to Dr Gopinath, there are conceptual challenges inherent in current security discourses. The example of terrorism was given. While usually considered a traditional security threat, terrorism is non-traditional in terms of the actors involved. To overcome the traditional and non-traditional binary, WISCOMP analyses non-traditional approaches to security concerns, through which both traditional and non-traditional security concerns are brought together via ‘multi-logues’. These allow multiple conversations among different security fields, and could potentially be more effective at filling the interdependence gap, the structure-process gap and the justice gap often experienced by non-traditional security issues.
The Close Link between Human Security and Human Development
International security and policy regimes are engaged in bridging the space between development and security. Dr Gopinath cautioned that the contemporary absence of overt conflict or war does not mean a secure life for communities. To ensure such security for communities, the human security framework needs to be linked with human development. This would necessitate the study of the patterns of power and the structural conditions of conflict, requiring a critical re-evaluation of techno-strategic approaches and of the social constructions of the roles of men and women.
Techno-strategic discourses such as the use of ‘collateral damage’ to describe the cost of conflict in terms of human lives (during counterforce attack planning) tends to obfuscate and marginalise individuals. Death, pain and suffering during conflict remain untouched by the moral imperative when those affected are not viewed as individuals but as ‘collateral damage’.
Gender analysis, in addition to addressing the relegation of women to the background in relation to security and peacebuilding, extends to the critical study of how the social constructs of masculinity and femininity affect the roles of both men and women. Dr Gopinath iterated the need to expand interpretations such that masculinities, and not just a homogenous masculinity, are recognised. She noted that there exist subordinate, violent and marginalised varieties of masculinities, which could be internalised by women as well as men in situations of conflict or natural disasters.
The State: Protector or Predator
The state and its obligations towards the protection and preservation of its people and population needs to be foregrounded in all security discourses. Dr Gopinath mentioned that the primacy of market-led development has at times led to contestations by civil society of the legitimacy of the state as protector. For example, development projects in India have caused the displacement of an estimated 20 million Indians. A WISCOMP study on land acquisitions in Punjab, Pakistan revealed that an estimated 1 million tenant farmers were contesting the military over the issue of access to land. Civil society in South Asia – and in particular women organisations – has been proactive in many instances of such state-citizen contestations, lending their voice to issues such as the right to information, and the protection of the environment in the Himalayas. In Nepal, women organisations brought to the fore the issue of gender rights and access to land and livelihood.
Dr Gopinath highlighted the prevalence of techniques of biopolitics in political contestations between the state and women. During the period after the Partition of India in 1947, the Indian government utilised its Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 to facilitate the return of women from Pakistan to India, making their repatriation a matter of national honour, or put another way, women’s bodies were inscribed with national honour by the state. The policy ignored the circumstances, needs and concerns of the women who were repatriated following substantial time and adjustment to life in Pakistan.
Furthermore, there was a clash between the notion of honour at the state level and that defined by cultural ideologies at the societal level. For most of the women being repatriated, there were difficulties returning to their families because they were considered to have lost familial honour in the course of the abductions and the atrocities, such as sexual violence, they were presumed to be subjected to in Pakistan. As a result, many of these women, made to desert their reconstructed lives in Pakistan, were reduced to living in shelters in India following abandonment by their families in India.
The body could, on the other hand, be also used by women as the site of political resistance against the excesses of the state, as seen in the example of Irom Sharmila in Manipur, India. Sharmila has been fasting for 10 years, protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 which has provided impunity to armed personnel for violent acts against persons in Manipur, India.
Capitalising on the Role of Women in Non-Traditional Security Issues
Dr Gopinath emphasised that women’s knowledge and participation are critical to the survival of communities, especially in situations of natural and environmental disasters. She mentioned the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007, where Wangari Maathai highlighted the disproportionate harm experienced by women despite having contributed the least to climate change, and the exclusion of women at policy discussions and negotiations on climate change. During the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh, the death rate of women was five times higher due to cultural practices distancing women from public spaces containing information on the cyclone. In the case of the Indonesian tsunami, women comprised 80 per cent of recorded deaths.
Dr Gopinath made reference to initiatives in India, including Navdanyaand the work of Dr Vandana Shiva in exposing how women work most directly with the earth’s resources. They are ‘seed-keepers’, leading communities in conserving natural resources and adapting food consumption practices; they have a societal role as peacebuilders holding communities together by ensuring food security through the maintenance of crops and agricultural patterns which resist the repercussions o
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