A journey to remember

Perhaps for the first time, women from areas of continuing conflict — Kashmir and the North–East — meet to share experiences and draw sustenance from each other 

From a climate of widespread  fear, insecurity, death, ‘disappearances’ and the memories of it, women arrived in Delhi from Kashmir and the North–East last month for a two–day dialogue between them. These were women who had, directly or indirectly, been affected by the continuing conflict in these two regions and had learnt not only to reconstruct their own lives but that of others, including their own families. 

In this atmosphere, women are particularly impacted and have to cope not only with increased violence in their lives but also with increased burdens as well as the tasks of providing for the family. Yet these experiences are seldom talked about or considered at moments of decision making Women from both these regions have also played major roles as peace makers; they have helped in resolving problems and rebuilding lives as it is to them that the task of putting together the damaged fabric of society has fallen.

The objective of the meeting was to bring together from these two regions women who have faced ongoing conflict. It was hoped that through being able to share their experience and coping strategies, the women would be able to build networks, make links and quite simply, share information. 

The participants were survivors who have lived in the grip of political violence for long years, finding ways on a daily basis not only to cope with it and manage their lives but also to devise new ways to overcome the hazardous consequences of such violence….

How would they cope with the summer heat and dust of Delhi was our concern as we received them. But they were unmindful of it – relieved that the busy landscape was not dotted with men in uniform toting guns, army or paramilitary convoys bringing traffic to a sudden halt or the ever present threat of being stopped and searched….
For some of them, it was their first ever exposure to life outside where they lived. But meeting each other was a fresh and unique experience for all of them. A conflict spanning decades, it has left an indelible imprint of deep fear, trauma and suffering on generations of people including men, women and children. 

When a Naga woman activist elaborated on it, stressing that among the people who have been deeply affected are women and children, it found resonance among the Kashmiri women. A woman from the North–East pointed out poignantly that at first men used to be their protectors but now the women have had to become the protectors of men as they had to step out to take on the role of negotiating for a just and peaceful resolution of conflict. 
The stories began to flow as women spoke of their experiences. Despite the social, cultural and historical differences, a remarkable similarity emerged in what they had to narrate. Experiences of living in terrible fear and intimidation, of not knowing when they might become the targets of cordon and search operations or when their family members — men, children, young boys and sometimes even young girls – might be picked up and taken away.

The search for a missing family member, whose numbers today run into thousands might often be rendered impossible by the total abuse of human rights in both regions. Even their fundamental right to live in dignity and freedom, and without fear had been taken away. “When we step out in the morning, we are not certain we would return home to our loved ones in the evening,” said an old woman from Baramullah. She has spent ten years searching for her husband who was picked up by the security forces from his shop and has not returned since. 
“We have had to close down the shop as there is no male member left in the family. I have six daughters and I cannot risk their lives. With this only source of livelihood closed for us, I work in other people’s homes to earn a living. And when I return home, my daughters and I work on the charkha to earn a little more…. There are scores of women like me,  whose lives have suddenly been transformed.”

In many families, where men have either been killed or are missing, other than women being forced out of their homes, children have had to give up their education as they were sent out to support their families. The women shared each other’s anxiety and the burden of nurturing a new generation growing up in a hostile and violent environment, and how to protect their innocence, health and well being. 

For the women, the opportunity to speak to each other in the course of the dialogue was a valuable learning experience. Many of them felt that it had helped them realise that they were not alone in their struggle for justice and peace and in their attempt to restore hope and confidence where it had been eroded. When women from the North-East, particularly Nagaland, spoke about the strategies they had evolved and adopted to negotiate for peace in their region, the Kashmiri women articulated their concerns and constraints in doing the same. For them the fear of the bullet was a daily threat and reality which restrained them. “Even as I go out to work each day, I see myself as a wife and mother, anxious to safeguard and protect my family….”

Four days of staying together and talking to each other about their concerns had clearly established that despite the hardships they had suffered, most of the women did not perceive themselves as victims. Having crossed the threshold of their homes not only to seek livelihood but also justice, women were in fact giving rise to a new equation of relations both within their homes and outside, no matter that their role and contribution is not yet fully recognised by society.

This exchange, when it extended outside the meeting hall, saw women relate to each other in warm camaraderie as they ate together, posed for photographs with each other and sang songs. They also went out to see the city for the first time, returning with small gifts to take back for their dear ones. 

As they exchanged addresses they promised to stay in touch with each other, hoping that someday they would be able to build a network of lasting relationships and common strategies. This meeting was a first step towards this process….    

(The dialogue was organised jointly by the Violence Mitigation & Amelioration Project (VMAP) of Oxfam India Trust and the North–East Network).

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8  No. 69, Special Report 2



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