by Katharine Daniels, Executive Editor
This author profile is the first in a series of conversations between our executive editor and The WIP Contributors. Many women, like Binalakshmi, are successful agents of change in their communities and are leading powerful movements for peace. By highlighting their work we hope to strengthen The WIP’s role promoting the extraordinary efforts of our contributors.
Peace and Happy New Year from everyone at The WIP. –Ed.
In Manipur, a state in northeast India bordering the country of Burma on the east and south, a political conflict with India has persisted since the once independent kingdom was forced to join India after the British left in 1947. While the conflict is political in origin, the influx of weapons over the last five decades has prompted soaring rates of violence among ethnic groups in the region. Manipur has the highest number of gun-related deaths in India – violence that creates 300 widows per year. Yet the world rarely hears about Manipur or the “slow genocide” Binalakshmi Nepram has witnessed.
Binalakshmi has led a remarkable life promoting disarmament and an end to gun violence through the Manipuri Women's Gun Survivor Network and the Control Arms Foundation of India. This year she was awarded the Seán MacBride Peace Prize. The Prize was given at a ceremony held at the Nobel Peace Centre in the Norwegian capital Oslo on September 23, 2010.
Earlier this month I interviewed Binalakshmi just as she was on her way to the Indo-Burma border areas to meet with 30 women survivors whose husbands had been shot in the last month. Via Skype she spoke with me about gun violence, the arms trade treaty, and the critical role of women in peace and disarmament.
When did you decide to turn your life’s work into the cause of disarmament?
Christmas Eve of 2004, when I was visiting community women leaders in a village in Manipur I heard gunshots. Before I could realize what had happened somebody told me that a young 27-year-old man has been shot dead. [The women] brought this young girl, Akham Rebika, who was only about 24 years old, to come and testify what had happened. She was just widowed, just an hour before. Rebika hadn’t even dried her tears when she spoke in the public meeting about how three armed gunmen aged 19 to about 21 came and dragged her husband from her house and shot him point blank. That was not the horror of what I saw that day. But [the horror was] when her mother started crying, saying “How can I feed you anymore? They should have shot you dead also.”
This was a turning point of my life, Kate. It was that day I realized that I cannot just be a writer researching about why violence happens. But what do you do about women like Akham Rebika who have survived? I had 200 rupees which is about five dollars in my pocket. I gave it to her with my phone number and I told her that your mother may have told you this, but you have to live to find out who shot your husband, to find justice for you in his memory.
We got money together and bought a sewing machine and gave this sewing machine to Akham Rebika and told her that even if she earns 800 rupees, which is about $15 or $20 dollars a month, she will not have to starve.
Talk about why Akham Rebika’s mother believes the way she does? Why did she say what she did to her daughter?
In many parts of India, a major earning of the family - because it’s still a very patriarchal society - comes from the men. So when the man dies, then people worry how the wife and other members of family will survive. The rationale of the mother was ‘how can I feed you anymore? They should have shot you dead because the bread-winner is dead.’ This is the way in which women are economically bereft of the economic rights and justice, which has led to situations like this. And it is this particular situation, of not having to survive in poverty but also surviving poverty and violence in a conflict zone, which make us say that we will work with empowering women survivors because economic empowerment and livelihood is a must. If we have to bring change in our society such as this, then we have to see that the stomachs of our women are full, that they have a small [amount of] money to save for the future education of their children. In that way we work towards transforming the face of violence in our society.
How has Akham Rebika fared with her sewing machine? How is she doing?
In our part of the world it’s a very tropical climate. There are a lot of mosquitoes so you have to have mosquito net. She told me that she started stitching mosquito nets and earning a small income and she’s getting on with her life. We did a little thing for her out of instinct. But when we saw the kind of gratitude she gave to us then we realized that we have done something right and that gave us inspiration. And now we are working with almost 100 women survivors like her. We have come a long way from Akham Rebika. We have many more hundreds of Akham Rebikas because every year around 400 people are shot dead in my home state in Manipur. Kate, there’s a slow genocide going on which the world doesn’t know.
Can you tell me more about the players in this conflict?
India is a very ancient civilization but a very young nation. India was formed with a conglomerate of various kingdoms. My state, Manipur, was one such kingdom. It was a fully independent kingdom which was not a part of British India until the year 1891. When the British left in the year 1947 it gave the choice to many of the kingdoms, including Manipur, [to join with the union of India]. Our king and the council of ministers said we want to stay independent. But the “Iron Man” of India, Mr. Sardar Patel, put our King under house arrest and made him sign a merger agreement. Some Manipuris wanted to be a part of India while some of them did not. They were the ones who started the first fire of insurgency as early as 1949. This is how the political conflict between India and some of the armed groups in Manipur started which is continuing even today in 2010.
Manipur is home to about 32 beautiful ethnic groups. What has happened is many ethnic groups have started arming themselves because of easy availability of small arms and light weapons. In our part of India, we have found American M-16 weapons. We have found Israeli weapons. We have found British weapons. And Chinese weapons are the cheapest that we ever find. In fact young people - if they form groups of 16 and together with Chinese weapons - they can start their own insurgency group.
So what is happening is a political conflict started deteriorating into a law and order problem because many small groups started arming themselves because of easy availability of small arms and light weapons. The reasons of starting an armed group besides the political conflict mentioned above in our part of world ranges from demand for autonomy within India, inclusion of the community’s language in radio stations, demand for a hostel for that particular community, protection of forests etc. We also heard from sources that several armed groups were floated by state agencies to counteract the non-state armed groups. There has been various cases of arming ordinary citizens to counter the armed groups.
In the end, we have a society filled with guns – of both state and non-state actors – mostly men who hardly know what human rights violation means. And even if they know in our part of India, there is a draconian law called Armed Forces Special Powers Act which gives extraordinary powers to Indian armed forces to arrest, torture, and even kill people on mere charges of suspicion; and even the highest court in India cannot do anything about it. The casualty is ordinary men, women, and children. The killings have to stop someday.
Is there an international obligation or an international responsibility to respond to this?
Yes. We have been working since 2003 with several organizations from around the world - especially International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) for the United Nations Programme of Action on Controlling Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons - precisely because people like myself have seen the damage. Easy availability of small arms and wrongful use destroys our lives, our futures. We also have been working very closely with International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) to address the impact of landmines and cluster munitions.
At the moment we are focused with work to make the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) happen at the United Nations by 2012. We joined hands with this campaign to address the issue of weaponisation of our societies. If you lose a weapon, there is no international system in which you can track it. As a result, small arms and light weapons are flooding from one conflict zone to the other. An international Arms Trade Treaty, if rightly debated, discussed, and met about, will bring a major change in regulating these weapons.
An Arms Trade Treaty will help prevent that arms should not be used to commit rights violations and to commit genocide. National laws alone cannot help contain arms proliferation because many of the weapons which are flooding India are not made in India. An international Arms Trade Treaty will regulate this. We feel very strongly the need to have an international Arms Trade Treaty to bring the peace and to bring that kind of regulation that we desire.
Who opposes an Arms Trade Treaty?
Besides several weapons manufacturers who feel that their profit will be dented, there are several countries who also oppose an arms trade treaty. In the last voting at the United Nations, 153 countries voted yes to an Arms Trade Treaty and only 30-odd countries refrained from voting. I am very sorry to say, my own country India, the nation which gave Gandhi to the world, the nation which won its independence without firing a single bullet, chose to abstain. It is nations like ours and the 30 other countries who abstained from voting to whom we would like to appeal. Yes, every nation has a right to self-defense. If a person feels insecure, that person has a right to self-defense. But please do not use the weapons to commit the rights violation of another. With rights come responsibilities.
Talk about the unique role that women play in peace and disarmament?
I as a woman, especially a woman from one of the worst conflict zones of this country, have felt the damage, the pain, and the tragedy which comes to our lives because of a continuing lack of peace and justice. In many parts of the world women have always been told that our role is in the kitchen, that our role is to rear children, that our role is to be responsible mothers. We are never there where decisions matter; and if we are, we have to wear pants like the men to be able to do it. As women, and as women who have survived violence, it is time to turn the table because it is through our lens that we know where it hurts, that we know where the weapons are, that we know that weapons alone or militarization alone does not resolve the conflicts of this world. It’s we who feed our children. It’s we who feed the world. That’s why at the 10th anniversary of the United Nations landmark resolution 1325 we are appealing not just to our own government of India, but to governments around the world that we, the women, have to start staking our rightful claim at the negotiating table - that we have the right to decide our own future, how to end conflicts, how to devise strategies so that no future conflicts happen.
About the Author:
Katharine Daniels is the founder and executive editor of The Women's International Perspective.