Sunday, December 30, 2012

At year's end

December has been horrible.

The stress of the 16 Days Campaign. No matter how much we plan. No matter how great the team. No matter what, this is a pressure cooker period for all of us.

Through December, my Periamma was very, very, very ill and she left us on December 15. That's December's worst blow. It's such a big loss that I haven't wanted to say it aloud. I can't write about it. I don't want you to know because then it won't be true. If it's not true, we will still see her again. So don't read this post that I so desperately need to write.

And then the Delhi gang-rape and everything that has followed. Horrible for all of us. For me too, even if I don't outrage or lament or rage or cry. Particularly because we talk about these things all year. Just spent an intensive 16 day period of doing absolutely nothing else. And when I see people react as if they didn't know these things happen, I don't know what outrages me most. I want to cry because the task is so enormous, it sometimes feel futile. Will my feeble voice be heard in the cacophony?

An assignment that is endless and in content, just as depressing as anything, is like the blight. I cannot see the beginning or the end of it, and I am writing in small sections that don't add up to anything in my head. The template is not mine. Nor are the strictures--and there are many strictures. And yes, it's about the same kind of thing: the misery of women in times of conflict. Except that the point is to contextualize policy strategies to change that. But I can't feel that point in my heart right now.

And through much of this, the grief has just sat there like a massive rock in my heart. I cannot afford to look it in the eye really. It would engulf me and this work would never get done. It's another matter that work is going really slowly anyway. The body and the heart are so weighed down with sorrow that the brain is not really interested in anything.

Someday, I will be able to tell you what a wonderful Periya-Amma I have had. Someday.

December has been horrible. And yet, in comparison to the lives I read about for my work, it's been an absolutely marvelous time. I have been safe. I have been warm. I have had food, clothing, shelter, family and friends. And the Internet. And quite a bit of electricity and clean water.

And someday, this grief will lift and transform into something that is easier to carry around. It will not snowball so rapidly into anger and annoyance and resentment and fury and sorrow and blankness and slow-wittedness and impatience with the world and with myself. But that's not this evening. Someday.

I sit here, chip-chipping away at small tasks. This is all I can do. This is all I can do. And do it, I must.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Where have you been all this while?

Rahul Roy, What do men have to do with it?,, December 28, 2012.

I agree with so much of what he writes. As I posted this on FB, I found myself expressing some part of the anger and resentment that have been brewing inside me for the last two weeks. I didn't post those words there, but am doing so here.

As I've watched people write and speak about protecting 'our women'; as the voices and words of male op-ed writers initially drowned out those who have been working on these issues for decades; I have wondered resentfully: does the 'mohur' of male opinion make this an important Indian issue? Are women too waiting for 'their men' to signal the importance of an issue before they will take or express an interest? Does it constitute 'permission'? Does male approval make women's rights a serious issue as opposed to a 'ladies' issue'?

I longed to hear voices from the women's movement everywhere on this issue, but it took one week for them to start showing up in newspaper columns. It infuriated me that decades of reports and learning and activism were overlooked when journalists asked here and there: who are the experts? If they had been listening all along, they would not have needed to ask.

Opposing violence against women has been on the Indian women's movement agenda all along, and the agitation against the Mathura judgment marks an important turning point in its history. That was 32 years ago. At least since then, if not earlier, women's organizations--including Prajnya--have worked on some dimension of this issue--providing support and services to survivors; lobbying the government on legal and police reform; training police and other government offices on gender issues; reaching out to the public with awareness programmes; writing and speaking everywhere possible. But who was listening?

We want society--men, women, transgendered persons, everyone--to speak out against violence--in all forms, all contexts. (That's why Prajnya made these videos.) But on equal terms, not the same old ones.

I want to tell you that this resentful post is a very subdued articulation of how furious I really am. I am really trying to be polite and diplomatic here. My cousin assures me that even when this moment passes, this time there will be some collective memory that once we were angry together about this issue. And that a few more people will join this journey after this. I hope she is right.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Research ruminations

I have been writing about gender and sexual violence as forms of insecurity, making the case that they are security issues, that they represent failures of democratic governance, etc., etc. And I have drawn on the cottage industry of reports and studies that reinforce some of these statements, especially in connection to gender violence and sexual violence in conflict zones.

One of the great women's movement victories of the last two decades or so has been to get sexual violence in conflict recognized as a crime against humanity. The routine looting and raping of armies during campaigns or occupation (and also of non-state actors) finally received the condemnation it always deserved. Moreover, with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and its sister resolutions, the message has gone out firmly to states and other conflict parties that at least in conflict situations, we are approaching a moment of zero-tolerance for this horrible human rights violation.

Several reports and studies have been written describing the horrors of sexual violence during conflicts. They are powerful--I can attest to this--because they often include survivor testimonies. It makes for horrible and hard reading, and it makes exactly the impact that is sought to be made. Denial does not remain an option after one reads these reports.

In recent weeks, I have needed to look more closely at the same growing pool of resources, in search of data from Asia and have been dismayed to find very little. For one, most of the cases that are usually discussed are from Africa--Rwanda, Libera, Sierra Leone, Congo, Sudan. For another, what you do find for Asia is usually either very specific (a quotation from one meeting) or very general (there was rape during this crisis). The information that might be available is in sources that for a variety of reasons are out of bounds, and many conflicts in Asia actually fall below the radar of what I can write about. After weeks of searching almost fruitlessly and literally scraping morsels out from this note and that report, I don't know what to think.

So here is a really hard question that I am actually afraid to ask but must if I am to be an honest scholar: If there is no accurate, reliable data on gender violence and sexual violence in conflict zones, are all of us over-stating a problem because for a range of our own reasons, we want it to exist? And my 'on the other hand' for this is: Data is also very sketchy and unreliable for other kinds of violence, but we do know it exists. For instance, we don't know how many wives face abuse in their homes, but it is safe to say that abuse is far more common than it ought to be.

But still, why is there so little data? And where there is, for instance, with the Special Rapporteurs' reports, they are based on visits that happen at unpredictable intervals and the Special Rapporteur does not necessarily return to the same context. We don't know what has changed and what has not.

The UN has tried to get around this by setting up a special database on violence against women, but they have sent out questionnaires to member-states that ask questions mainly about laws and policies in existence. Even if they had asked for data, though, where would member-states go for that data when it really hasn't been collected systematically--and maybe can never be--anywhere.But that's a concern I have written about at other times and that we did a seminar on last year, so I won't rehearse those stories.

I am more concerned about what we say about the experience of women in conflict and why? If what we write is half-based on imperfect accounts from other contexts and half on accounts that don't match a variety of evidentiary standards, then how do we tell the stories we know to be true in a way that is also factual? And without telling those stories again and again, how on earth do we point to the changes we want to bring about?

I don't know.