Kiran Omar


On December 6, 1989, fourteen women students of the University of Montreal Polytechnic were murdered by a lone gunman. Since then some form of commemoration of this tragic event to highlight violence against women is held every year in Montreal.  In the following article Kiran Omar deals with the a panel discussion about the  important question of violence against women.


On 3rd November, 2008, a group of concerned young South Asian students at McGill University, Montreal, came together to organize a panel discussion on the escalating instances of violence against women in the South Asian region. A situation that is alarming concerned citizens of the region and the large diaspora that resides in North America. The group wanted to explore the reasons for the increasingly deteriorating personal security situation that women find themselves in today, and discuss what measures need to be taken by educationists, governments, civil society members and others, to ensure that women and young girls are protected from societal violence.


The organizing group calls itself South Asian Women’s Aid (SAWA) and organizes various cultural, educational and informative events in order to increase awareness about the many issues of marginalization and discrimination that women face in the South Asian Region.


There were two panelists, Dr. Ratna Ghosh, Professor of Education, McGill University, and myself, Kiran Omar, an independent political observer and women’s rights activist.


I based my talk around a paper prepared by Dr.Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the UN Secretary-General on Children in armed conflict, entitled “The Varied Contours of Violence Against Women”. This paper was presented at the 5th Asian Ministerial Conference, Celebrating Beijing Plus Ten, convened in Islamabad in May 2005. I wanted to focus on women and children in South Asia, caught in situations of armed conflict, which today, threatens the region’s stability and security.


Post independence, South Asian countries have increasingly been embroiled in armed conflicts and civil wars. Ranging from the Pakistan/Afghan border, Kashmir, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Maoists in Nepal, Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka and so on, women and children have been caught in the nightmare of war.


They are affected in various ways during an uprising or armed conflict. They are subjected to rape and sexual violence by soldiers and militants. Rape during warfare is one of the oldest crimes and although is declared punishable by the Statute by the International Criminal Court (ICC), none of the countries of South Asia are party to the ICC. Sexual violence during conflict continues unabated with little or no prosecution and perpetrators remain unpunished.


Another major consequence of armed conflict is the creation of what the UN terms” Internally Displaced Persons” (IDPS), it is estimated that in any given conflict, up to 80% of IDPs are women and children. They languish in makeshift camps where they are subjected to horrendous living conditions, surviving on meager rations, afflicted by epidemics, sexual violence and harassment.

 A brief overview of the regional situation was presented:


Pakistan: The International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), reports that military operations against armed opposition groups in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in recent months, according to the limited information available. While many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have apparently been able to return to their areas of origin after a respite in the fighting, others remain displaced with little access to humanitarian assistance. In the NWFP’s Swat Valley, conflict between armed insurgents and the army led to Asia’s biggest new displacement in 2007, with between 400,000 and 900,000 people forced to flee their homes towards the end of the year. (UNHCR estimates).


By 14 October,2008, over 190,000 IDP’s from Bajaur alone, have been recorded by the IDMC and other international relief agencies. Pakistan has, as recently as October/November 2008, been forced to reopen the refugee camps that had previously housed hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing the war in their homeland. These camps today offer rudimentary shelter to the IDP’s from Bajaur and other conflict zones in the Frontier province.


Nepal: Women and girls fleeing the civil unrest in Nepal in 2006, sought refuge in neighbouring India and Bhutan, where they were subjected to violence, trafficking and prostitution. More than 18 months after a peace agreement between Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government was reached, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people had been displaced by ten years of civil war remained unable to return to their homes. Most are prevented from doing so by unresolved land and property issues, insecurity and a lack of assistance from the government.


By 2004, NGOs working with displaced women were warning that the combination of conflict, displacement and prostitution had contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS in Nepal. Although Nepal had a relatively low prevalence of HIV/AIDS compared to other countries in the region, the Far Western region, where many IDPs are concentrated, had by 2005, one of the highest rises in HIV rates in south Asia (UNHCR, 1 January 2006, p.29). In 2004, it was reported that up to 50 per cent of the women returning from India had tested positive for HIV (OCHA/IDP Unit, June 2004, p.3). During 2007, local NGOs in Accham district in the Far Western region reported that an increasing number of people returning home, mainly from India, were HIV/AIDS positive and that a total of 500 people had died from HIV-related causes in the past three years (OCHA, 12 June 2007, p.4).


Sri Lanka: Stress of displacement increases cases of violence against women within their families.


Surveys conducted in Sri Lanka in 2006 showed that almost half of the displaced women faced violence and sexual abuse. An unusual phenomenon that we see emerging, in the case of Sri Lanka and its long drawn out internal armed conflict, is that of women becoming combatants. The Geneva Convention is ambiguous on the protection of women combatants. The rehabilitation and reintegration of these combatants into civilian life post conflict, creates a myriad of social problems.


At the termination of the conflict, repatriation and rehabilitation is often a long and tedious process. We have seen this in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, where retuning IDP’S find their lives changed forever. With their homes destroyed, looted and burnt, their men folk dead, severely wounded or disabled, they are caught on a downward spiral of poverty and devastation. They are not part of any safety net or communal structure that can help restore their lives.


The women who face widowhood as a result of these wars, are subject to societal pressures and ostracization. They experience economic problems, as there is little in the way of war compensation or any sort of widows’ funds, they also face discrimination and social harassment. They often become the poorest members in their communities.


Trafficking and prostitution is another outcome of armed conflicts that affects women and girls. They become easy targets for those preying on women and since there is widespread chaos, refugee camps and shelters are poorly protected, so abductions and coercions for money, food, clothing and other basics, are rampant.


The ensuing discussion focused on the following questions: What steps can be taken by civil societies and citizens to ensure that women and children are considered “zones of peace” in times of conflict? How can governments strengthen their capacities to rehabilitate and repatriate displaced women and children post-conflict? Should  the national armed forces of countries be trained on emergency protection measures and sensitising towards vulnerable groups like women and children? What  measures  could be taken by police and other security agencies toward ensuring adequate protection of women from rape, violence and other atrocities in times of conflict.  What is the role of foreign troops assisting local security forces (example NATO forces in Afghanistan; peacekeepers, etc) in conflicts, and how can they ensure that UN Resolution 1325 pertaining to protection of women and children is respected?   How central is societal preconceptions on the role of women, to their treatment in times of war?


Following a lively discussion, the participants were urged to become agents of change upon completion of their academic life and returning to their respective countries, where a drastic change in perceptions and attitudes was urgently needed, if the region is to attempt successfully addressing the issue of violence against women.  (The SAWA team is comprised of the following: C. Suteria, B.Soomro P.Mudgal, S. Gidda, S.Mohamed, S. Allana, S.Warraich, T. Jhunjhunwala & T. Ahmed. They can be reached at: ttaimur.ahmed@gmail.com)



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