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Q&A with Rita Manchanda: Conflict and Women’s Rights

  • Frances Alonzo

FILE - Afghan women stand in line while waiting for their turn to vote at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif.

FILE - Afghan women stand in line while waiting for their turn to vote at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif.

The Women’s Regional Network is alarmed that the international community may be trading away women's rights in peace negotiations in order to appease armed groups opposed to gender equality. The group is dedicated to strengthening women’s rights to ensure peace and security for women living in the conflict zones of Asia. Some of the members had meetings at the U.S. Institute of Peace as well as at Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. The delegation included Rita Manchanda, the Research Director of South Asia Forum for Human Rights in India. She explained to VOA's Frances Alonzo the importance of keeping women's issues front and center in all negotiations.

MANCHANDA: What we want is that the influence of the U.S. be exercised to ensure, to encourage the equal participation of women in decision making structures. That can only happen if in fact the U.S. includes in all its processes, either gender conditionality; their funds be made conditional on promoting the meaningful participation of women. It’s based on the fact that the experience of conflict for women is different, women’s needs are different and unless they are directly represented their concerns will be ignored.

And particularly in our context, which is where there are peace deals in the offing with the Taliban, in relationship to Pakistan or in the context of Afghanistan. Then there is a real fear that the advances that had been made on women’s rights will be set back. Women had been encouraged to come forward to take up public office, to become active in NGOs. They in fact formed the vanguard of a lot of these initiatives, today they are being targeted. Today they are being pushed back into the home and those who dare to continue working outside are being targeted, are being attacked, are being eliminated.

So many expectations where raised that protecting, promoting the rights of the women in the region is a primary concern. And advances have been made, now, that cannot be abandoned. That kind of setback would so irreparably damage all the good that has happened.

ALONZO: So what would make your visit here successful?

MANCHANDA: You know we are not that utopian that we feel just because we talk to somebody it’s going to change the world. It’s merely to keep hammering away and saying that women have capacity that they are not the problem. They could be the solution. So it’s a question of really trying to shift the discourse and hopefully working towards enabling certain legislation that we see beneficial to this cause. Even if it is not passed, we are not going to say that we are defeated because these are very long uphill battles and we don’t expect to win them in a day. But the only way you are going to change the discourse is to go on at it. Think of this, in 2000 when the Women Peace and Security Resolution was passed by the [United Nations] Security Council, the big boys club, who would have thought that it would have happened? It happened because of efforts, constant efforts by the women’s movement and yes, recognition on the part of the men there.

Why is it that the peace processes are collapsing? Why is it that within five years they collapse? Is it because we are excluding some of the most vital stakeholders in the peace process? And 50 percent of those vital stakeholders are women.

ALONZO: You use the term “hammer” away, “hammer” and “constantly” advocate your cause. Is there a time where it might go from advocating and being strongly passionate about your cause to “nagging?”

MANCHANDA: I think, and I would agree with you, I used an unfortunate word “hammering.” It is to continuously go on and pushing. It’s only nagging if you are not able to be creative in what you are saying. Bringing in new evidence, bringing in new research, then certainly I don’t see that as nagging. Unfortunately, if we don’t keep the agenda in front it will slip away.

Of course, I don’t enjoy continuously and constantly pushing a one line agenda. We hope that we will be bringing in a great deal more evidence based research. One of the things that we are presenting are the community conversations; that is the voices of women from the ground in India, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan; talking about how is it that they see security. How do they perceive militarization. What is it that makes them secure? What kind of peace would they like see? Which is feasible, which is possible?

We are not just talking in terms of rhetoric in terms of this is what we want. We are saying look at the evidence. And also we are pointing out, what you are doing hasn’t worked. Surely it’s time to try something else.