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Women, conflict, rights

International conventions are easy to sign but hard to implement, writes Swarna Rajagopalan on the 11th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, taking a close look at two recent reports which point to the mismatch between what is needed and what exists on paper

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 turns 11 on the day I sit down to write this column. In these 11 years, other related resolutions have been passed that, taken together, press for the following: inclusion of women at the peace table and in peace and reconstruction processes; the end of impunity for sexual and gender violence during conflict and post-conflict phases; the creation of inclusive institutional structures in transitional and post-conflict settings; and attention to women’s experiences and needs in all stages. Countless conferences and workshops have followed, and perhaps the passage of what I think of as “1325’s sister resolutions” is an indication of a growing normative consensus around these questions. 1325 may be the closest expression in international agreements to feminist political ideals, but it remains an ideal and not part of common practice even today.

In recent months, I have had occasion to read two important reports that relate to women’s rights and women’s conflict experiences. One comes out of the specific context of conflict experiences in two Indian states -- Assam and Nagaland (1). The other is UN Women’s first ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ report, focused on how effective the law has been as a vehicle for gender justice (2).

The two reports look beyond describing women’s experiences, exploring the available support systems and redressal mechanisms to which they have access. They come at this search from different starting points, the experiences of individual and community in the first study, and structural arrangements in the other. Both point to the mismatch between what is needed and what exists on paper.


The ‘Bearing Witness’ team visited villages in three districts of Assam and Nagaland and spoke at length with women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Starting with that filter, they found quickly that the trauma behind each person’s PTSD might be personal but it also might be the trauma faced by a family member, or someone else in the close-knit community, or trauma remembered across generations, or the trauma of losing the thread of a clan’s history through multiple displacements. Sometimes they found they were the first people to have visited an area and asked people about their experiences.

These individual stories stay with you even after you put the study down. This may be one of the team’s most important contributions, to anchor theoretical and polemical propositions about women in conflict in individual experiences that haunt you even though they are far removed from your life. Like that of the baby left in a tree hollow without food for three days by a mother forced to flee her village in a hurry; that baby grew up to join an armed insurgency group. Like that of the mother whose 12-year-old son was shot to death by Indian army soldiers in front of a video parlour where he’d been watching a movie with his friends. Like the stories from Dhemaji where villages were burnt down and mothers fleeing with infants saw their babies tossed into the fire. This is the human experience of inhumane behaviour in conflict zones worldwide, but each individual story is a wake-up call.

Most of the time, the research team found that people were unaware of their rights and of the compensations and help to which they were entitled. They did not know the state had a protective role to play towards them, such had been their experiences! Where they were, they were disinclined to seek them anyway. There were hardly any trauma counselling services available anywhere. Impunity has also meant that communities have to live with their grief and trauma and also see those who perpetrated violence walk free and unaccountable.

‘Bearing Witness’ offers separate conclusions and recommendations for Nagaland and Assam. In Nagaland, the researchers found that the structure of Naga communities meant that trauma was experienced and expressed collectively, but the same collective sense of identity was the social capital that helped people cope. This was especially important in the absence of trauma services. People were largely unaware not just of their rights and entitlements within the state but also of the draconian legislations that operate in northeastern India. Their experience with the Indian state was largely their experience of Indian army actions. The impact of conflict on women’s lives was similar across class and community. Some of the specific recommendations for Nagaland include people-friendly legal and trauma services, awareness and education for women, rehabilitation packages, and strengthening of traditional and modern support systems. The study also identifies the need for further research and topics for future study.

For Assam, the conclusions and recommendations centre on the provision of trauma counselling and mental health services, livelihood training and opportunities, legal services and protection from human rights violations for women, as well as ensuring that they receive the compensations to which they are entitled. In both contexts, but especially for Assam, the research team makes a point of urging the inclusion of women in the political process, including the formation of women’s committees in conflict-affected villages to look into violence against women and human trafficking concerns.

‘Bearing Witness’ spends some time exploring awareness about legal and institutional arrangements and advocates legal and human rights education, especially for women. But the 2011 UN Women report asks: have laws delivered justice for women? And the answer is not entirely positive.


The first ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ report brought out since the creation of UN Women begins by pointing out that in 1911 only two states granted women the right to vote, but in 2011 that right is almost universal. The women’s movement has lavished a great deal of attention on legal reform and setting up institutional mechanisms for gender justice. From the suffrage movements of the early-20th century to campaigning for women’s inclusion in human rights instruments to seeking legislative protections from gender-based violence, the law was long the focus of feminist attention. But the Indian experience with dowry and sex-selective abortion shows that a legislative act is not enough. The Dowry Prohibition Act was passed in 1961; dowry continues to be demanded, given, and to be the cause of harassment and death. Attitudes towards dowry, marriage and women have not changed; what has changed is that there is now a law under which cases, if reported, can be booked and counted. The passage of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 has neither limited (let alone ended) the practice of sex-selective abortion nor has it resulted in the reporting, counting and conviction of offenders. Laws are important, but not enough. What is the global experience?

‘POWW 2011’ looks at how justice systems work for women, examining four elements of these. It finds that new, gender-sensitive laws have been widely adopted, giving women greater access to a whole range of opportunities and rights. Laws and social change have been symbiotically related; social reform sometimes creates the push for legal reform, and laws sometimes become social norms. Laws do not end violence or inequality but they articulate general social disapproval, allow reporting, investigation and conviction, and facilitate documentation.

The report finds three areas in which there is still work to be done. The first is in ending explicit legal discrimination against women. The second is to extend the protections that law currently offers to include those situations that it does not cover as yet. For instance, ‘POWW 2011’ finds that 127 countries do not explicitly recognise marital rape as violence. The third is to ensure government is responsible both for implementing existing law as well as for the unintended consequences of its actions and laws that place women at a disadvantage. In most countries, a very small fraction of cases stay the course through conviction. The report identifies long complex ‘justice chains’ -- that is, where a long series of steps have to be taken by a woman reporting injustice or violence -- as an important obstacle and suggests the establishment of one-stop shops that provide emergency care, counselling and court preparation support. ‘POWW 2011’ cites the example of Thuthuzela Care Centres in South Africa, which are housed in public hospitals but offer both emergency medical care and legal counsel. Employing more women in law enforcement, supporting women’s legal organizations, and getting more women into the lawmaking and judicial branches of government are other recommendations. The presence of more women in the police is clearly correlated in the report to higher levels of reporting sexual violence.

A positive finding, which one might attribute to the changing international climate on women’s rights in conflict zones, is that by and large women seem to participate more in post-conflict constitutions and political systems. Where more women participate in lawmaking, the report finds that laws work to advance women’s rights. Rwanda is an example of both -- more women in post-conflict settings and more women-friendly laws. The post-war constitution mandated that women be at least 30% of Rwanda’s parliamentarians. However, the percentage of women in Rwanda’s parliament has exceeded that, and the willingness of parliamentarians to cooperate across party lines to further women-friendly laws has resulted in important legal reforms including the extension of equal inheritance and property rights to women; equal statutory land rights; ensuring that women occupy 30% of posts at all levels; and a law against gender violence, and one that criminalises marital rape. The report identifies post-conflict reconstruction as an opportunity for redrawing the social and political framework of gender relations. Prosecuting violations of women’s rights, creating gender-sensitive truth commissions and putting in place reparations programmes that are accessible to women and cognisant of their experiences are three recommendations made towards making full use of this opportunity.


International conventions are easy to sign but hard to implement; sometimes the hardest part is the acknowledgement of the problem itself. On November 2, 2011, the ‘2011 Human Development Report’ was released (3). It incorporates a Gender Inequality Index, on which Indians might take some solace in ranking higher on gender equality than overall human development, as well as ranking higher than some of its neighbours -- 129 as opposed to 134! The indicators included in this index are maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, percentage of seats occupied by women in the national parliament, secondary education, labour force participation, and reproductive health indicators including contraceptive use, access to a healthcare centre for antenatal care, attendance at birth by skilled health professionals, and fertility rate. These are old challenges and India’s sustained low ranking suggests that gender equality is really not important to Indian society or policymakers. Being a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) does not guarantee gender equality or gender justice.

With UN Security Council Resolution 1325, too, this is the case. If 1325 depends on the state alone, then it is going to be hard to see more women at the peace table when the state does not acknowledge the existence of conflict situations. If however, it is also a signal to civil society, then it is possible that mandate will set changes in motion. 1325 mandates the end of impunity, and that applies to conflict, post-conflict and ‘normal’ situations; but that brings us back to the question of laws and gender justice. What form will implementing this aspect of 1325 take? Will places like Assam and Nagaland see the establishment of trauma service centres and livelihood and policy training for women? For feminist peace activists, the advocacy agenda has now to go past getting the laws and conventions in place to finding ways to operationalise and implement those that exist, towards inclusion, towards training, towards ending impunity and securing justice (4).

1 Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, ‘Bearing Witness: A Report on the Impact of Conflict on Women in Nagaland and Assam, 2011’, available at
2 UN Women, ‘Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, 2011’, available at
3 UNDP, ‘Human Development Report 2011, Gender Inequality Index and Related Indicators’, available at
4 Swarna Rajagopalan, ‘Building a feminist peace’, Seminar, Number 619, March 2011, available at

Infochange News & Features, November 2011