India: across the crossfire – women overcome violence
“Let women not be viewed solely through the lens of vulnerability.” With these words Mary Werntz, head of the ICRC’s regional delegation in New Delhi, opened the day-long launch of the book, Across the Crossfire: Women in the Conflict Zone. Supported by the ICRC, the Women’s Feature Service and Women Unlimited – Kali for Women, the book is a compilation of works written between 2009 and 2011 by women from throughout India. The stories celebrate the strength of women in situations of violence.
Violence, in its many forms, affects people in diverse ways, often tearing families and communities apart as people are uprooted from what they had perceived as safe havens – their homes. Robbed thus of both economic and physical security, women and their children become particularly vulnerable. Yet, “women are not represented in camp committees, although UN (United Nations) guidelines on internally displaced persons state that women must be included in all decision-making bodies,” pointed out Ratna Talukdar, whose story revolves around women suffering from the consequences of disturbances in Assam.
In another instance, it is “interesting to note here that the commission appointed by the state government to look into the case was comprised entirely of men,” pointed out Ninglun Hanghal in discussing her story about the rape survivors of Manipur.
In addition to enduring displacement and rape, women suffer from violence in other ways: given only limited access to health care; not being able to visit their jailed husband because of the need to care for the family at home; being subjected to incarceration for petty crimes . . . In a word, violence ensures that the sad fate of scores of women is sealed.
Yet, women play critical roles during and after conflict, as combatants, survivors, heads of households, community leaders and peace builders. For example, the women of Sanjarpur – a so-called terrorist village in Azamgarh, a district in Uttar Pradesh – voluntarily gave up the simple joys of life, says Kulsum Mustafa. “They have just one desire – to get justice for their children, restore peace and bring tranquillity. . . While adversity has devastated them, it has in a way helped these “purdahnashi” (veiled) women – most of them illiterate – to rediscover their inner strength.”
The stories of Ratna, Ninglun and Kulsum are only three examples of the many narratives, essays and anecdotes in the book. All of the pieces focus on women caught in insurgencies, wars, riots and natural disasters. Written in the authors’ individual styles, submissions range from touching to tortured, poignant to pragmatic, as the travails and tribulations of women are recounted. There is the story of Thenmozhi, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, who sacrificed her own dreams to dedicate her life to counselling those who had fled to India during the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka; Bimala Majhi, who had to be carried in a bamboo basket by her husband to reach the only public health centre in the region, located in a faraway village in Odisha; 25 women from deep inside some of Manipur's remotest districts who campaigned hard for justice to expose the pitiful situation of rape survivors; Shikha at the Indo-Bangla border, a region marked by cross-border tensions and where young women from impoverished families become easy prey to human traffickers; and a school nearly 2,000 metres above sea level in a corner of Kashmir that through the community’s support helps girls gain access to education.
The ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – close to the victims
Dr Syeda Hameed, the chief guest at the event and currently a member of the Planning Commission of India, detailed her own struggle with getting the issue of women affected by conflict onto the agenda of the Planning Commission. Remembering the ICRC as having been the only credible institution in Sri Lanka during the conflict, she underlined the need for the government to work closely with organizations such as the ICRC on this issue.
The ICRC’s experience in the field demonstrates that women display immense resilience in keeping their families and communities together. The story of Fulara Sira – a 45-year-old Garo tribal widow who was displaced along with her family from their village on the Assam-Meghalaya border – substantiates the importance of the Micro-Economic Initiative Programme organized by the Assam branch of the Indian Red Cross Society and the ICRC. In 2011, Fulara was full of energy, writes Ratna Talukdar. Fulara had even persuaded Red Cross survey volunteers to visit the site where her fruit trees had once stood, showing them where she wanted to replant them. “She felt this was the only way she could forget the bitterness of the immediate past and move on to a hopefully happier future.”