Aditi Bishnoi is Associate Editor, Women’s Feature Service. She has a background in communications and has written extensively on issues of social concern.
While the impact of conflict and violence on the lives of women in India is well recognised as being deeply destabilising, women for the most part are missing in the conflict discourse. Media reporting on wars, insurgencies, riots and natural calamities routinely overlooks them: administrative responses to the social disruptions caused by conflict remain insensitive to their special needs: legal regimes and the redress they offer continue to be gender-blind; and women remain seriously under-represented at the policy-making and peace-keeping tables in the aftermath of conflict. In other words, it is in their absence that women register their presence in the annals of our disturber times.
In an attempt to address this lacuna, Across the Crossfire presents a series of news features commissioned by the Women’s Feature Service. Written between 2009 and 2011, these features illustrate a gamut of women’s experience of conflict in India, ranging from their lack of access to emergency health care in the insurgency-hit areas of rural Chahattisgarh and Odisha, to their extreme vulnerability to sex-trafficking in West Bengal. Crucially, Across the Crossfire also documents instances of women’s courageous resistance, their creative pragmatism and their inspiring resilience as, time and again, they reach out across divisive lines and rebuild their communities and lives.
History has demonstrated, time and again, that women — even though they may not be combatants themselves - have had to bear in large measure the grievous impacts of conflict and violence. These could range from injury and the loss of close family members to dispossession, displacement, and the vulnerabilities and responsibilities that accompany such condition.
Ii is in response to this tragic history that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) envisaged general protections for both women and men caught in situations of armed and other form of conflict. In general, IHL makes mandatory the humane treatment of the wounded and sick, prisoners and civilians. It outlaws hostage-taking and the use of human shields, and lay down that women must especially be protected from sexual violence or the threat of the use of such violence. Additionally, it recognises the right of families to know the fate of missing relatives.
Since conflict often means the absolute destruction of the foundations on which normal life functions — the destruction of home, the disruption of food and water supplies, and the denial of access to education and health care — IHL makes it obligatory on parties to the conflict to allow the quick and uninterrupted flow of humanitarian relief to those in need of such help. And although IHL aims at preventing and alleviating suffering in any conflict without discrimination based on gender, it does recognise that women face specific problems in such situations that require comprehensive redressal.
One of the challenges in achieving this, however, lies in the general lack of awareness about the often disproportionate costs that women bear during such crises. Not enough information about women’s specific problems during wars, riots or instances of civil unrest has emerged in the public arena, either within the media or in the corridors of power and policy-making. We believe that this book will contribute towards changing social attitudes and refining official interventions, so that women come to be perceived not just as victims of conflict but as part of the process of ushering in recovery and justice in a post-conflict world.
We are grateful to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for supporting this project. We wish to clarify that the features in this compilation present the views of their respective writers and do not necessarily reflect in any way the opinions of the publishers or editors.
Let us begin with an intriguing irony. While the impact of conflict and violence on the lives of women in India is well recognised as being deeply destabilising and profoundly disempowering, women for the most part are missing in the conflict discourse. Media reporting on wars, insurgencies, riots, and natural calamities routinely overlooks them; administrative responses to the social disruptions caused by conflict remain insensitive to their special needs; legal regimes and the redress they offer continue to be gender blind; and women remain seriously under-represented at the policy-making and peace-keeping table in the aftermath of situations of conflict. In other words, it is in their absence that women register their presence in the annals of our disturbed times.
It is against this backdrop that we would like to place the present collection of narratives from various zones of conflict in India. Written between 2009 and 2011, these reports focus on the discrete experiences of women caught in insurgencies, .wars, riots, situations of civil disorder, and natural calamities in “one of the most culturally diverse and socially fragmented agrarian societies in the world”, as political scientist Paul Brass has described India.
The word ‘conflict’ itself is a multilayered one. Broadly defined as incompatibility between two or more actors that cannot be simultaneously resolved, conflict can range from overt clashes to covert ones; it can entail individual traumas or the collective tensions of an entire community; it could have a verbal dimension or a physical one — and sometimes it could have both; it can exist in popular perception in terms of potentially destablising threats or it can be reflected in concrete and continuing states of armed assault and violence.
International Humanitarian Law recognises two broad categories of armed conflict: international armed conflicts involving two or more States; and non-international armed conflicts between governmental forces and non-governmental groups or between non-governmental groups. The conflicts that this collection documents constitute a spectrum of disruptive developments, violence, struggles, and pitched battles, all of which have resulted in considerable human suffering.
Our intention in putting together this collection is twofold. First, these narratives attempt nothing more ambitious than to tell the stories of women in conflict-ridden regions and situations, women whose voices would not otherwise figure in the public sphere. These are women whose only fault was that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in a scenario they did not create and over which they had no control. Second, this reportage seeks to explore the commonalities in the experiences of women working in such of combat, in different locations and circumstances.
The fact is that conflict plays out in physical/geographical spaces, on people’s bodies, as well as in their minds. As living landscapes get radically altered by social tensions, women and girls are disproportionately affected because of their gender. When health centres are rendered non-functional, more women die in childbirth; when neighbourhood schools are converted into police barracks, fewer girls go to school. The loss of income and livelihood generation is immediate and telling. Women who had earlier been earning independent incomes from farming and cattle-rearing are suddenly forced to inhabit relief camps and subsist on doles or forage for forest produce to keep families going. Once the fabric of normal life is destroyed, women also become extremely vulnerable to sexual violence, and coping with the ensuing stigma and social rejection only compounds their existing trauma.
What also comes through with great clarity in this collection is that long after the hostilities have ended — and some could have stretched on for decades — there is a continuing and persistent lack of human security that threatens the well-being of not just the present generation, but that of the future as well. However, the reportage here stands as testimony to the fact that while women may be the victims of enormous violence and conflict, they are also great survivors who display courage, wisdom, and initiative in the most daunting of circumstances. The book’s three sections reflect this fact: the first, Lives, interrupted, presents stories of women who have experienced conflict, violence, and calamity at firsthand; the next, Survival Guides, is about how the conflict-affected organised themselves resist repression, deliver education and health care, ensure justice delivery, and rebuild lives, with varying results; the final section, The Power of One, focuses on unsung ‘she-roes’ who have made all the difference in the conflict zone by exerting individual agency.
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