On 18 May, WILPF, the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network and the Control Arms Foundation on India (CAFI) co-sponsored an event at the Baha’i Center in New York entitled “Indigenous Women at the Forefront of a Strong Global Non-Violent, Peace, Security & Disarmament Movement” . The speakers included Maria Butler, WILPF Global Programmes Director; Raja Devasish Roy, Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People; Martha Saxton, Professor of History and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst College; Elsa Stamatopoulou, Professor at Columbia University and Director of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program; and Binalakshmi Nepram, Founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network & Control Arms Foundation of India.
The discussion centered around possibilities for linking the women, peace and security (WPS) movement and the indigenous rights movements together. Throughout the two-hour event, challenges were addressed, recommendations put forth and historical connections discussed. Ms Butler began by referencing the recent murder of human rights defender Berta Cáceres as a call for the movements on WPS and indigenous peoples to come together. “It is our diversity that is our strength, and we realised that at our WILPF 100,” she said. “Cross-movement building is essential, and that’s why we’re here. We are here to learn how we can work together.”
Nepram spoke of her work with the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, which she co-founded in 2004. More broadly, she also addressed the struggle faced by the women of Manipur, a state in northeastern India. They live under martial law, and the Indian government continues to deny the existence of indigenous groups, and limits their political rights and their right to be the only ones to own land. “This is our land. If we lose it, we lose our identity and our people,” Nepram said.
She also discussed the women’s movement, Meira Paibis (Indigenous Women Torch Bearers of Manipur), with which they have worked for decades to fight for their rights as indigenous people. She introduced the audience to the concept of “household disarmament,” in which the women of the community keep weapons out of their houses. “We the women know where the weapons are and know what it means to disarm a society,” she said.
Ms Saxton discussed several historical themes relating to Native American women in the United States and Canada. She addressed the lack of jurisdiction on Native American reservations and the increasing number of raped, killed and missing indigenous women who have received no justice. “There is a law of justice black hole in native communities; you can get on a reservation and no one can touch you,” she noted. Although some NGOs have worked on the issue, there’s no tribal enforcement of, or US funding for, this isue. Ms Saxton therefore called for more documentation on reservations for these women.
Mr Devasish discussed the historical background of the indigenous community in Bangladesh, specifically in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. He mentioned that during the war for self-determination in the 1970s, rape was used as a tactic of war. He focused on what the chiefs are doing to address issues facing women in the community including inheritance law, child custody, divorce, and political leadership. Since leadership in the tribe is hereditary through the male line, women cannot be leaders; however, an attempt has been made to address this by appointing 150 women local village leaders, some alone and some alongside men.
The audience was then given an opportunity to contribute to the discussion, and a representative of the Ochapowace Nation in Canada spoke powerfully about the issue of genocide of indigenous peoples and called for the Indigenous Forum to dedicate future discussion to the topic. He put forth seven recommendations for further discussion, and his suggestions were met with applause.
In closing, Ms Nepram and Ms Stamatopoulou called for further integrated work between the women’s peace movement and the indigenous people’s movement. As Ms Stamatopoulou pointed out, more work at the nexus of these movements would be a powerful step. “[Indigenous women] are subjected to conflict. The extractive industries are taking the last of our resources. If indigenous people are well, we are all well.” Ms Nepram also spoke of how non-violent protest can be more powerful and frightening to the powers-that-be than violence. “A gun in a crutch, not a sign of strength,” she declared. “When unarmed people rise up is when the world starts to get afraid.”