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Photograph by Hemant Bhatnagar
Photograph by Hemant Bhatnagar

Building Peace

An Indian think tank—Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace—places women at the heart of the discourse and decision-making processes on security and conflict.


South Asia has long struggled with a host of destructive conflicts that have often defied the efforts of established authorities to resolve them. However, a brighter future may be on the horizon as an under-utilized resource—women—moves to the forefront through the efforts of an Indian think tank, Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP).

Launched in 1999, the organization is an initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, which was established with funds from the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989.

WISCOMP brings different stakeholders together in workshops, symposiums and training on issues like gender, conflict, peace and leadership. It has also produced over 300 academic and institutional publications.

The organization evokes the qualities of wisdom and compassion associated with women, says founder and director Meenakshi Gopinath. “Women bring special skills to conflict resolution,” she says. “Their informal networks provide them access to information that is often missed in ‘official’ dispatches. They are effective at grassroots work, especially as part of mothers’ fronts that can effectively intervene between warring factions to stop bloodshed. They seldom work with either/or scenarios, and they are able to explore multiple options in the conceptual ‘gray zones’ that provide greater flexibility.”

Men, too, have a vital role in peace building, says Gopinath, while emphasizing that all those affected by conflict deserve to be heard. “WISCOMP does not subscribe to the essentialist position that all women are somehow, biologically or socially, preconditioned toward peace or that ‘men make war and women make peace.’ Our position is if you leave out the voices of a substantial section of the population, you also effectively leave out some valuable solutions to resolve conflict,” she says.

“Also, having experienced marginalization themselves, women are able to effectively foreground issues of justice to appeal to sections of combatants. Women constitute a substantial group, even as we believe both women and men have to co-create a more humane and inclusive world. What we wish to harness are the positive attributes of the feminine energies—not passive femininity—in both women and some men to engage with skills that need to be brought into the public domain when making peace...,” says Gopinath.

The organization takes a long view of conflict resolution, with a primary achievement being the creation of a group of young people from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other South Asian nations, who have been mentored by it to develop complex and nuanced views of the conflicts involving their countries.

“We invest in the future, recognizing that peace is a process, not an event,” says Gopinath. “We have consciously, from the beginning, invested in young people, or ‘future influentials’ as we call them, exhorting them to understand ‘the other’ and develop a stake in peace building in South Asia. This has, we believe, paid dividends. Today, we have an active cohort of over 500 young people who have participated in our conflict transformation workshops, and many have told us that these workshops have been perception game changers, especially in terms of the ways they see conflict and the possibilities of interventions that they can make.”

WISCOMP also focuses on the problem of gender-based violence through a program called Partners in Wellbeing, which aims to change the attitudes, beliefs and behavior of young women and men to counter and prevent violence against women and girls. Gender-sensitization dialogues and capacity-building workshops on gender equity bring together youth from urban and rural areas and disadvantaged communities. The program, supported by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in India, focuses on “effective methods young people have and can employ to combat the cultures of violence impunity and silence around gender-based violence that seem endemic in our country,” says Gopinath.

While acknowledging that the road to lasting peace and gender equality will continue to be bumpy, Gopinath is optimistic about the future, noting that her organization plans to extend its efforts to other countries as well.

“We believe that through the work of the remarkable women in our network, we have been able to create awareness about the importance of women’s voices,” she says. “But a lot more needs to be done—a paradigmatic shift in policy circles is yet to be achieved. So, our work must continue with persistence, creativity and innovation. We will continue to work in a way that makes despair unconvincing and hope practical.”

 

Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.


 

 

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