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Why sexual violence in conflict is an Indian problem

More than 100 states have endorsed a declaration on ending sexual violence in conflict. India is not one of them. Not surprising, writes Swarna Rajagopalan, in a country which turns a blind eye to high levels of gender discrimination and gender-based violence

sexual violence

 

In a few days, London will host “the largest gathering ever brought together on the subject, with a view to creating irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground”—a Global Summit to end Sexual Violence in Conflict. In December 2012, the UK committed resources to an issue that their foreign secretary described as the “the slave trade of our generation”. In April 2013, they took the lead in getting the G8 to pass the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict and since September 2013, more than 100 states have endorsed a UK-sponsored Declaration on ending Sexual Violence in Conflict . India is not one of these countries.

The Indian reluctance to extend unqualified support to emerging gender-related norms goes back to CEDAW, but in this instance, there are two factors that make lack of endorsement predictable. The first is India’s anxiety about international accountability diminishing its sovereignty. The second is India’s assertion that there are no conflicts within its borders; the 12th Plan refers to the special needs of women and children in “disturbed areas”, a term that is used to describe a gamut of situations where the armed forces are called in to maintain peace or support civilian services. The Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1976, has a description: “extensive disturbance of the public peace and tranquillity, by reason of differences or disputes between members of different religions, racial, language, or regional groups or castes or communities.” That is, a disturbed area is an area experiencing some measure of conflict; the term does not include natural or industrial disasters.

Research, news and field reports all point to the fact that sexual violence in conflict also takes place in India. Even in a climate where we would rather ignore this, some stories reach every end of this sub-continental state. Kunan Poshpora, the Jammu & Kashmir village where all the women were said to have been raped by army soldiers in 1991, is one example. In this instance, the question of justice has long been displaced by challenges to the veracity of the report and subsequent fact-finding teams. The rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in 2004 spurred dramatic protests but after 10 years, the legal structure that facilitates impunity in Manipur remains: The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In the communal riot situations in Gujarat (2002) and in Kandhamal (2007-08), rape and gang-rape were common instruments for the violent mob. 

A group of regional peace workers, including academics and activists, recently designed and undertook a series of Community Conversations with women across conflict-affected areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. In India, they interpreted conflict broadly, including different degrees of militarization and structural violence in their case selection criteria. Researchers spoke with women in the border districts of Rajouri and Poonch in Jammu & Kashmir (as opposed to the Valley itself); with women and other leading stakeholders in Tripura; with women participating in the anti-POSCO protests in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, and with women affected by the communal violence in Kandhamal, Odisha. Comparing notes across these varied cases, the writers find a culture of impunity prevails for the most heinous crimes.
“Existing documentary evidence further corroborated by the CCs [Community Conversations, expansion mine] indicated that sexual violence was widespread and prevalent and women’s bodies were used as a strategy of ‘war’ to humiliate, punish and destroy community ‘honour’. In addition in the conflict contexts of -women without men- ‘opportunity’ rape and incest was common [sic].” (page 48)

State and national non-state actors have very occasionally investigated complaints of sexual violence in conflict areas. In some places, they openly suggest the pursuit of compensation rather than justice; given how difficult life is on a day-to-day basis, justice seems too distant to pursue. In others, they are responsive but in the context of institutions so damaged that their work carries no weight. Emergency laws like AFSPA and its local versions make it hard to file an FIR and have your complaint investigated. Permission is not granted, or if the accused is in the armed forces, the case goes to an opaque court martial process. Intimidation and tampering with evidence are alleged but there is no one willing to investigate. The communal violence context is even murkier, and in the case of Jagatsinghpur, false complaints of rape against the protestors make action against sexual violence truly a double-edged sword. In this situation, the tendency is to prosecute for compensation and to advocate reconciliation; survivors of sexual violence have no hope of justice.

Women themselves were reluctant to make an issue of the experience of sexual violence. In more than one location, when researchers tried to link the discussion on sexual and gender-based violence to the experience of violence, conflict and militarization, women resisted. To some extent, this came from the concern that to talk about sexual violence would deflect attention from larger causes and struggles.

“If our husbands beat us sometimes, it is not violence. But if the husband is displaced and gets compensation or a job and starts to drink and then beats us, that is an act of violence. Even if we are beaten up by our husbands, it is okay, as long as we are together in this struggle.” (page 21)

There are many reasons for making sexual violence an issue, but in India, where we are not even willing to recognize how many Indians live in conflict-like conditions, here are some that should matter to us.

We need to think about “conflict” as a spectrum of situations. From the open hostilities between two state actors or a state and a non-state actor, to violent confrontations between mobs, the operative conditions are high levels of violence around us and a prolonged experience of insecurity. Moreover, where Indians are stationed as peace-keepers, we become a part of a distant conflict situation as well. Living with violence desensitizes us to its use and brutalizes our responses to the world around us. Rather than discuss a difference of opinion, we are amenable to striking a blow to enforce our view. Violence is a contagious habit that becomes a part of interpersonal interactions as well.

Sexual violence in conflict situations is possible because we already turn a blind eye to high levels of gender discrimination and gender-based violence. Impunity for sexual violence is possible because we are only now beginning to consider everyday sexual harassment as abusive behaviour. Violence within a home follows when relationships in that home are dysfunctional and unhealthy. Investigating harassment in the workplace, we often run into other administrative and fiscal malpractices as well. Conflict, by definition, is an erosion of whatever values and rules we have adopted to regulate our own behaviour—especially our violent behaviour. The violent behaviour we tolerate in militarised settings seeps into what we would consider ‘normal,’ such as elections. Witness the rising levels of misogynistic speech by our political leaders and the verbal and physical attacks on women candidates in the 2014 elections.

The trauma of sexual violence lingers, and lingers as an obstacle to peace. There can be no peace with impunity; whether in the aftermath of a communal conflagration or an external invasion or insurgency and counter-insurgency operations or police action. Amnesties sometimes work as short-cuts to peace; if you want a ceasefire, a laying down of arms and a signature on a peace deal, an amnesty can be the quid pro quo. But ignoring sexual violence creates a situation where assailants and their victims have to live next-door, without any emotional closure. The South African model recognized this; the emphasis on truth as an element of reconciliation offered a measure of justice to those who lived with the memory of sexual violence every day.

Many decades ago, I was appalled when a military acquaintance used the term “spoils of war” to describe war-rape. His defence was that this is what had always happened, throughout history. But we live in an age where, by politics, by principle and through the norms we ourselves endorse globally, we have come to characterise sexual violence in conflict as a crime against humanity. To ignore allegations of sexual violence is disgraceful but to ignore the possibility of sexual violence in fraught situations where there is no accountability is stupid. Awareness and outrage around everyday gender-based violence are higher than before; that needs to extend to conflict and militarised situations. While everyone does gender sensitization training now, what are our police, paramilitary and military actually learning?

In spite of such training and facilities provided to keep Indian peace-keepers otherwise engaged, we hear occasional complaints about sexual misconduct and exploitation. How do we make this more effective? In recent years, the Indian peacekeepers with the most glowing reputation have been the all-women police unit stationed in Liberia. Is this the lesson to be learnt? That sexual violence in conflict is prevented by including more women in the ground troops everywhere?

The upcoming Summit in London is not about somebody else’s problems. Sexual violence in conflict is also an Indian issue, and one we need to think about a great deal more than we are. Given the challenges of reporting from conflict zones, research and gathering data on sexual violence are virtually impossible tasks. We cannot wait for perfect data in order to take cognizance of this reality. For most of us, the beginning is awareness and a willingness to think critically about violence and conflict. For some of us, it is to press for greater accountability and better training. For those in the trenches, the challenge is to make our chosen norms a viable reality. 

www.infochangeindia.org, June 2014