International Women’s Meet on Nonviolence and Peace

Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

International Women’s Meet on Nonviolence and Peace

Gandhian nonviolence continues to renew and offer alternative approaches to the politics of violence. Those with an expertise of nonviolence in India – and internationally need to come together, to resist and mobilise against this state of the world and create peace at all levels. Conflict can be in the form of direct violence like civil wars and natural disasters at the macro-level or in the form of indirect violence that emerges from oppression and poverty such as marginalization of those that are already in vulnerable state at the local level. In saying what could be done to transform violence, Gandhi wrote: “Nonviolence must express itself through the acts of selfless service of the masses”(Gandhi, Vol. 8, pg.81). This continues to provide succour to our common humanity. 

One among the many segments of society that can play an enormously important role, but that have been largely invisible, are women. They have however been integral to several struggles alongside men, including the struggle for freedom, but have remained unrecognised and invisible. Many women that have experienced violence know how “to contain conflict” and have developed strategies and knowledge of handling violence without it haplessly going out of control. Some women have demonstrated leadership of not allowing conflicts to morph into destructive forces. Numerous women’s movements have found ways to turn violence towards constructive purposes and direct it towards positive political change. The challenge is that these forms of action that women take up to address the multitude of problems they face in everyday lives, is a forgotten narrative. It is this that needs to be unfolded and applauded. 

The 16th UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs set in 2015) emphasises that “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development provide access to justice for all and builds effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. The UN Women, the branch of the UN dealing with women’s issues, makes a call for mobilising women as unique carriers of peace. Internationally, the UN has recognised the importance of women’s contribution in bringing peace. Therefore, this has to be clearly underlined as a key point in national development processes.

Nonviolence and peace efforts seem to have become a historic necessity.  We are in a period when the world has been overtaken by considerable amount of political and social violence and civil unrest. There is conflict and war in African countries like Congo and Sudan; Syria, Libya, and Chechnya are war weary. Countries in South Asia are facing religious and caste-related disturbances causing riots and bloodshed in many places. There is a spike in violence across the Middle East and the ten year long war on terror seems to be extending into the next decade. Not for many years have people seen such huge streams of refugees on their way to an uncertain future. To many, this appears to be a politics of violence spiralling out of control, with no exit strategy, ushering in an epoch where precipitous conflict affecting civilians in every part of the globe is a real possibility.

One of the silver linings is that women have played a critical role in times of conflict, as peace-builders, negotiators; they have been engaged at different levels using nonviolent action to make their point. There is Aung San Suu Kyi of Myammar, Ellen Johnson of Liberia, Shirin Ebadi from Iran, Tawakkol Salam from Yemen, Gro Harlem Bruntland from Norway to name a few well-known women leaders. But there are also countless and invisible women across the globe doing daily peace work. This is emblematic in the international campaign known as “Million Women Rise” (MWR). It is designed to mitigate violence against women.

On the other hand, we have the opening up of the global market to benefit the rich and powerful, and this is largely responsible for further increasing the divide between the rich and poor. Such inequality is another source of conflict, resulting in further impoverishment of the “bottom of the pyramid”, which happens to be constituted by a large segment of the world’s population, and poorest among these being women. In situations of extreme income inequality, it is women and children that suffer the most. This is particularly seen at the community or local levels where women are subjected to all forms of human rights violations, as they are easy targets, and powerful people use this tactic to oppress vulnerable and poor people. Women are not just targets for physical abuse and brutality, but they are subjected to economic deprivation too and hence the resultant increase in feminisation of poverty.

Ela Bhatt, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association and one of the great women leaders working in a Gandhian tradition in India remarked about the bargaining power of poor landless women labourers:

 “Then I was thinking they do not have bargaining power. What strength do they have to demand? Violence was out of question. They had not even thought of that. And that does not win your battle.” (Interview, May 31, 2016)

The destruction of our earth’s resources is another area that needs to be countered with nonviolence on a massive scale. Controlling climate change is not possible without course correction on how people relate to the earth.  Gandhi reminisced that “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”. Unbridled resource extraction, unlimited consumption, linear economic progress is violence at a planetary scale. Well-known ecologist and thinker, Vandana Shiva (2015) in her recent publication Terra Viva aptly reminds the reader of  how conflicts over extracting resources is reduced to ethnic and religious conflict as a way to divert people from appreciating the real cause of ecological crisis. She says:

The conflicts emerging from non-sustainable and unjust resource use are not

seen in their ecological context but reduced to ethnic and religious con-

flicts. For every problem and crisis created, ever greater applications of

the extractive, linear, and blind logic are brought to bear.


Social unrest, opening of global markets and planetary crises are all interlocking vectors that compel us to look for nonviolence in governance, economy, society, the environment and education. The complexity of the world order leaves people feeling that they are in a gridlock controlled by “top-down” global structures of real politic, corporatisation of the market, mass media and formal education. This is reminiscent of the British colonial period in India, when the modus operandi of the rulers was to control the minds of (wo)men. In the Indian Freedom Struggle, Gandhi countered this and made India’s population indifferent to British control, giving people a sense of their own autonomy as a way to non-cooperate with unjust rulers.

Although India’s government after Independence did not rebuild a new post-colonial society on Gandhian lines; rather they used nonviolence only as a way to achieve political freedom. Yet Gandhi’s vision of a nonviolent society did not die.  In the last seven decades, millions of Sarvodaya workers, NGOs and freedom fighters have carried the message of nonviolence to remote corners of the country. There have been thousands of experiments at every level, and work in communities has imbued women and men towards organizing using nonviolent action and transforming the society. Building on these efforts, it is important to bring greater visibility to the women nonviolent actors that remain. One of those efforts emanating from a Gandhian tradition is Ekta Parishad’s movement to address the issue of landlessness. 

Different Kinds of Grassroots Inspired Nonviolent Action: A Case from EktaParishad 

Within one of the contemporary Gandhian social movements in India, Ekta Parishad has worked since 1990 using nonviolence in pressing for land redistribution and forest rights for the poorer landless rural communities. There have been different kinds of nonviolent actions that have been taken up. These are all common in that they aim for “bottom-up” development. They include: 

·      Nonviolent Conflict Resolution: Reconciling differences between warring communities particularly in cases involving Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and their access and use of resources.

·      Women’s Transformative Nonviolence: This is where women change the life of the community through organizing and a set of interventions, while learning to deal with the conflicts (resistance) created by gender hierarchies and elite groups.  

·      Women’s Village-based Economic Empowerment as Nonviolence: This gives women (community) more autonomy so that the women have greater space for decision-making, leading to greater dignity, and security with which to build local assets, have greater control over common resources, and better access to loans.

·      Grassroots Social Movement Building: Developing mass actions to press for dialogue with the state in the areas of social and economic policy or legal change. 

·      Nonviolence as a Component in Youth Leadership Development:To assist young people to discern what is violence and nonviolence both internally and in society and learning how to handle difficult conflicts especially regarding the discrimination and marginalization of the poor. 

Thare many other examples in India and outside where nonviolent strategies and methods are being used on a regular basis. Some of these will be brought to the International Women’s Meet. 

Other kinds of Peace-building and Nonviolent Action involving Women’s Groups

Some of the other kinds of peace building and nonviolent action that are worthy of note are:

·      Mahila Shanti Sena (Women’s Peace Force) Orissa: Modelled from the Peace Brigades International and NV Peace Force, these are trained women teams that intervene in conflict situations especially gender-based conflicts. 

·      Sweat Lodges: Purification and Healing Ceremonies: Mainly Found among North American Indigenous Communities and it is being revived by women leaders to change the family and community relations. 

·      Mindfulness Training& Yoga: Bringing mindfulness and meditation into educational spaces. 

·      Interreligious Dialogue: Working across religions to bring common understanding.

·      Setting up Peace Zones: To develop areas in conflict regions where people are able to live in relative peace.

·      Making the State Accountable through Nonviolent Dialogue

·      Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Movements 

·      Social/Solidarity/Local/Nonviolent Economy Work: Developing economies that are closer to the people and therefore equitable.

·      Cross-Cultural Exchanges and Oral Histories: Widening understanding among different cultures, especially those that are in perpetual frozen conflicts.

·      Peace Education/Studies in Schools/Colleges: Learning to bring negative and positive peace into research, training and life-long learning. 

·      Nonviolent Communication: This is compassionate communication.

·      Working with Inmates of the Prison System and Perpetrators of Violence

·      Male Sensitization on Gender Equality

In conclusion bringing all these different ways of promoting peace-building and nonviolent action together into addressing  ‘Youth Leadership’ is the critical agenda. Reflective action needs to be taken up in ensuring that the gains made by the current generation that is handing its baton to the next generation, is not lost. Peace is needed more than ever before. It is for this reason that an International Women’s Meet on Nonviolence and Peace has been organized in India in October 2016. It is the first time in India that a women’s initiative on peace is taking place on this scale. This will hopefully open up the doors for sharing of experiential learning of nonviolent action with international and Indian peace activists. This Meet brings together the local and international, the activist and the academic, the Gandhian and the feminist, All of whom, are using nonviolence, in its broader sense of, being action-oriented, holistic and context specific. The dream is peaceful coexistence and therefore using nonviolent action is a critical step towards transforming society for Justice Peace and Equality. 

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Author: Vinod Kumar

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