The challenge to be addressed: women’s exclusion from peacebuilding and economic power
Women’s experiences of gendered conflict are often excluded from post-conflict reconstruction policies. But if mindful, gendered policies are not developed during this period, women’s rights, equality, security, and wellbeing might remain unaddressed and excluded from the mainstream economic and development agenda. This is true in most socio-political ecosystems, especially those that undergo long periods of violence or displacement.
Likewise, in Jammu and Kashmir, patriarchal structures that existed even before the conflict – coupled with 30 years of protracted violence, Kashmir-centric discriminatory identity politics, and internal displacement of a minority community – pushed women, within their communities and beyond, to the margins. The losses they bore because of the conflict burdened them further with multiple responsibilities, trauma, and cycles of debt.
While the conflict systemically excluded women from the political narrative because of their gender, other factors like class, social status, ethnicity, religion, and cultural background added to their suppression even more. So, if a woman was from a community that had been suppressed based on religion and ethnicity, caste, class, or geographical area (eg, being located in a far-flung remote village), she suffered more because of the impact gender has on her location in the hierarchy. She would be rendered invisible and voiceless.
Further, women are invisibilised within political spaces, including those spaces where peacebuilding and development are being discussed. Women are decided for, excluded and marginalised along with their lived experience of the conflict. In Kashmir, women suffered from the presence of military and militants – they faced risk, poverty, and loss among other long-term trauma. In Jammu, displaced women faced discrimination, and erasure in social data, along with the challenges of being internally displaced.
Collectively, women across the region have seen an apartheid-like approach to policy development especially Dogra women in the Jammu region – one that reduces their knowledge and its value into caricatured ‘hobby’ groups and undermines their ambitions to be part of the entrepreneurial future of their region.
For a just peace to emerge in Jammu and Kashmir, these gendered dynamics of the conflict, need to be considered while framing policies, and peacebuilding efforts must consider their specific gendered needs.
Academic studies have shown that successful feminist peacebuilding strategies and approaches ensure that gendered inequalities and structural violence are addressed. A gendered peacebuilding matrix has the potential to enhance people’s resilience to conflict and empower them to end all forms of violence in their context. Effective peacebuilding also involves recognising the impact of gendered relations and identities on the prospects for peace and transformational change.
This article focuses on the latter and draws insights from the 5-year ‘Culture and Conflict’ project by the Gender, Justice, and Security Hub formed by the London School of Economics, implemented in Jammu and Kashmir region by Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Network from 2019. Following various crises, including the abrogation of Article 370 and a global pandemic, this project came at an opportune time to advance inclusive women-led participatory peacebuilding initiatives to rebuild a just ecosystem.
In 2019, the project brought together a diverse group of women – Kashmiri Muslim artisans from Kashmir Valley, Kashmiri Hindu artisans from displaced refugee camps in Jammu and Dogri – to augur women’s economic participation and inclusion for building better peace in the region.
The project focused on harnessing and cultivating local traditions, practices and wisdom for women to articulate and express through creative hand-made local crafts. They were mobilised, counselled, and trained through 2022-2023 to innovate new designs, develop new products, and learn how to connect to new markets for sustainable livelihoods. Our research used gendered approaches for developing women-led enterprises that connect women producers to new markets. Discover more detail on the women’s experiences of the project in ‘From Vulnerability to Resilience’: https://www.peaceinsight.org/en/articles/from-vulnerability-to-resilience/.
The initiative focused on using transformative approaches to address multidimensional and complex development and conflict challenges that have proven resistant to change, prone to fragmented responses, and that cannot be solved by a single organisation or from one disciplinary perspective.
It was conceptualised to foster inclusion and bring together different generations to spur leadership and a women-led development model. In a conflict narrative that has excluded gendered vocabulary, women’s perspectives and notions of identity, there are two key words that abidingly emerge to link inclusive development with peacebuilding: as Kanchan, an artisan from Basohli in Jammu says, “Our aamdani and pehchaan (livelihood and identity/recognition) are two values that women aspire for.”
The last five years of the project indicate clearly that women are a critical resource to understanding cultural spaces as sites of identity, refuge, healing, recovery, resilience, livelihood, transformation, and peacebuilding.
Fareeda, an artisan in Srinagar, Kashmir, found her freedom and healing when she participated in a storytelling session on the ‘practice of making’. She talked about her experience of loss while working on her embroidered fabric. “Stepping out, learning new designs, listening to other women share their experiences and embroidering is a healing for me”, she said.
Our research indicates that women’s tacit cultural knowledge is a cornerstone of their futures, experience and expertise. Their ambitions emerge from this knowledge. The value of this knowledge to them, their families and their region's peaceful rebuilding is high. It tells us that women across cultures have direct connections with culture through traditional crafts. They use their knowledge, skills, and the power of resilience to transform complex and multidimensional development challenges in favour of the well-being of their communities, families, and self.
They need capacity-building support initiatives, technology and budgetary allocation during the rebuilding phase for gender equality to become the benchmark for peace and development.
Several government initiatives. like Umeed under JK Rural Livelihood Mission and Departments of Handicraft in both Jammu and Kashmir regions have initiated schemes specifically for rural and urban women but they only impart training in skills and facilitate loans. The critical aspect of linking women with the market and sustainability is missing, and should be included in these initiatives in the future.
By linking the women groups with market outlets, the Culture and Conflict’ project not only introduced the aspect of ‘commercialisation of research’ in the academic world but also showed how SDG goals are intrinsically linked to women’s development and peacebuilding. Through the process of bespoke training and research, the artisans embraced innovation and their identity as producers.
An investment in peace
The focused group discussions and post-capacity building workshops debriefing with the three community groups tell us that investing in women’s empowerment is certainly investing in peace.
This project has created a new space for cross-cultural dialogue and inter-faith healing to begin between adversarial communities for forming respectful human connections. And its impact extends beyond the project duration: the women are also taking their learnings forward to start their own ventures, empowering themselves, and are expanding the initiative’s impact by reaching out to others.
In the refugee camp, Fancy, Dolly, Pinky, and other artisans are expanding their group, forming a bigger circle to form a collective enterprise. Antima, Poonam, Kanchan, and other young girls are motivated and inspired to start their ventures. From Srinagar, Iqra, Masarat, Taqwa and other older women artisans plan to invest their incomes from making and selling crafts for their future.
Our research revealed that women appreciate culturally valued practices, which are sustainable and viable to them. Exclusions from tables of power where policies for livelihoods, related training and access to resources would be decided, does long-term harm to women and indicates the presence of patriarchal gender-based inequity. A more financially secure future wherein women have more control over resources and markets will increase their say in the peacebuilding narrative.
As such, opportunities of livelihood that cuts across the community divide for fostering peace and sustainable development for all those living at the margins is crucial.
Inequality is very much present in the socio-political economy of the region, it is also gendered with women’s under-recognition representation in the economic sector. Several schemes by the government’s handicraft department provide training to women through their centres, and women get a stipend for the period they are with the centres from 6 months - 2 years. However, there is very little data on what happens to the women after the training period.
Our research transforms this equation through alliances and partnerships with stakeholders like academia, financial institutions, policy-making bodies, and trade/business ventures for women’s fair participation, data collection and visibility.
After living through a conflict that excluded their expression, voices and understanding of peace and justice, women now have culturally driven practices of craft-making, a medium to build resilience, greater social cohesion, cross-cultural relationships and peace. The project may not offer all answers, but it opens the space for a discourse to begin within policy circles.