Humanising national security

Print edition : January 05, 2002

Militarism and Women in South Asia by Anuradha M. Chenoy; Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2002; pages 184, Rs.250.

SOUTH ASIA is one of the most conflict-torn and militarised of all regions in the world today with its women (and children) bearing the unacknowledged burden of coping with the consequences. Men's interests and prejudices dominate the mainstream discourse on "national security". The increasingly self-conscious manner in which women are seeking to come on board and influence the agenda is evidenced in this volume as elsewhere.

Anuradha Chenoy's study seeks to develop a gender analysis of militarism and women in South Asia and challenge the centrality of men's perceptions on the issue. It locates itself in the broad theoretical context of feminist peace studies. The book seeks to demonstrate women's variegated negotiations with conflict and their capacity to emerge as agents of peaceful social change.

Militarism and Women in South Asia begins with an explication of "militarism" and "militarisation". This is followed by an analysis of national security doctrines and feminist critiques. There are then detailed considerations of poverty and militarism in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the militarisation of state and society in Sri Lanka, and the ongoing process of militarising India. The analysis of militarisation is combined with accounts of women's experiences of it.

The statistics that Chenoy presents are stark: there is one soldier for every 250 inhabitants of South Asia, but only one doctor for every 3,000. Governments in this region spend twice as much on their armed forces than on providing health and educational facilities for their citizens. And even though agriculture in these countries is in a state of crisis, their expenditure on arms imports is twice as high as their expenditure on agricultural machinery.

Along with fundamentalism and national chauvinism, militarisation is shown to have reinforced patriarchal practices. One minor quibble that could be raised about this book is, perhaps, the insufficient attention paid to the increasingly important role played by women's action groups in conflict mitigation and resolution in the region.

Graca Machel, the distinguished feminist and child rights activist, has pointed out that the vestiges of colonialism and persistent economic, social and political crises have greatly contributed to the disintegration of public order in many developing countries. While many have made significant economic progress, the resulting benefits have often been spread unevenly among their populations. The collapse of functioning governments, torn by internal fighting and the erosion of essential service structures, has aggravated inequalities, grievances and strife. The personalisation of power and leadership and the manipulation of ethnicity and religion to serve personal and group interests have had debilitating impacts. Many conflicts drag on for long periods with no clear beginning or end, subjecting successive generations to endless struggles for survival.

The 1993 Vienna Conference on human rights saw "mainstreaming gender" as a matter of human rights. The issue becomes especially complex in conflict situations where women's needs and rights are either grossly violated or marginalised. These conflicts, often involving politically weaker communities, impact on women in very specific and complex ways because of their status in society and their gender status. Women experience greater human rights violations, caught between different violators. While the state targets and uses violence to suppress women, the larger community remains apathetic to their special problems.

In situations of armed conflict women play different roles, among them, as relatives of both the men in armed conflict and of agents of the state machinery. In Sri Lanka, their role as militants and combatants has also come under focus. They also function as shelter providers, whether voluntarily or under coercion, and are often victims of sexual and physical abuse. Finally, they may even function as peace negotiators or as members of pressure groups working for reconciliation.

It is necessary to engage with all these categories of women to elicit a truly gender-based perspective on women in conflict situations. The impact of militarisation and armed conflict on women may be analysed in terms of violence, denial of rights, exclusion from peace processes and exclusion from decision-making.

VIOLENCE against women has been seen as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life". Such violence has often been couched in terms of notions such as "honour" and "protection" of women, which only perpetuate women's subordination. The concept of "honour", linked to concepts of chastity, purity and virginity, is used to perpetuate stereotypical ideas of femininity.

Women perceive peace as a condition which is free of violence of any kind and as the co-existence of all people with basic human dignity. This conception of peace begins with a woman's own immediate family and goes on to cover the entire world. When there is violence in society, women feel its impact first. They must therefore play a decisive role in negotiating the peace process. They need to be empowered politically and economically and represented at all levels of decision-making. However, there has been no effort by state and non-state agencies to involve women in actual negotiations for peace in conflict situations.

Women's peace movements have been a major influence on current trends towards redefinition of security. Real human security lies in protection against all kinds of harm, in a healthy environment that is capable of sustaining life and respect for human dignity. Women's experience of providing day-to-day human security and their more comprehensive perspective on what constitutes security is essential for the redefinition of security.

South Asia today is one of the poorest, most illiterate, most malnourished and least gender-sensitive regions in the world. The human costs of poor governance, regional economic non-cooperation and military confrontation are heavier on the women of the region than on the men. Women bear the brunt of loss of lives as a result of disease, hunger, civil and military strife and poverty. Women and girls face discrimination in access to health, education, employment, and other areas. They are also the victims of oppressive and rigid customs and traditions that perpetuate disadvantage.

The nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan in 1998 led to a large increase in military expenditure to the detriment of basic services. An intensification of a dangerous and costly arms race in the region followed, with an actual outbreak of war between the two countries, rising authoritarian propaganda and a massive displacement of development priorities by "security concerns".

India was reported to have spent about 2 per cent of its $469 billion GDP on defence in 1998, including on an active armed force of more than 1.1 million personnel. In the same year, Pakistan spent about 5 per cent of its $61 billion GDP on defence, with an active armed force half the size of India's. Even before September 11, the U.S. State Department had reported that South Asia has replaced West Asia as the leading locus of terrorism in the world.

In this context, it is all the more necessary to welcome studies such as this, which seek to explicate the gender dimensions of the ongoing militarisation of South Asia. More policy-oriented empirical case studies need to be undertaken to bring out the role women play in conflict management and resolution in South Asian countries and to foreground the concept of "human security" in place of the over-used and outdated concept of "national security".

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