Prajnya Gender Talks, September 2021 || Feminising Security – Resisting militarization of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda by Rita Manchanda


September 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the speaker

This Gender Talk on “Feminising Security” was held in recognition of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with Professor Rita Manchanda, a feminist scholar and author, and an advocate of human rights and peace in South Asia. Professor Manchanda’s work on defending the rights of women, ethnic minorities and forcibly displaced persons is located at the intersections of gender, peace and security. She has written seminal texts such as Women, War and Peace in South Asia and Women and Politics of Peace describing difficult encounters with the women and peace agenda in South Asia. Professor Manchanda, who serves as the General Secretary of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights, has also authored a five-volume series called Human Rights Audits and Peace Processes.

Why do we need to Feminise Security?

Professor Manchanda starts the talk by highlighting the religious nationalism that currently dominates South Asia. It has been 20 years since 9/11 and Professor Manchanda asks us if women feel more secure or less secure than before. Research shows that Indian women are at increased risk of violence and forced labour, substantiated by daily reports of gender oppression especially in marginalised communities, through both direct and structural violence. There is also a continuum of violence, which suggests a causal link between domestic and interstate violence, and shows us that we cannot separate security from gender equality. Violence at home plays a crucial role in creating conditions of violence, wherein state narratives of security use hyper-jingoistic rhetoric to consolidate state and regime stability. This is merely elites jostling power.

Professor Manchanda then describes the impact of these violent conditions on the public. Religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism get exaggerated to be extremist terrorism, and peaceful democratic struggles are positioned as anti-nationalism. For example, the media has to relabel militants as “terrorists” in Kashmir as per state directives. Such actions arrest dissent and are visible both locally and globally. Parallelly, hyper-securitisation of migration and public health gains clout. This roll-out of authoritarian policies, punitive measures and gag orders against transgressors, health care workers, journalists, and migrants leave long-lasting baggage.

What is the Dominant Paradigm of Security?

It is nothing but the states competing for power, to maintain a balance that would prevent anarchy. However, the need for a different and resonant paradigm for the new realities that exist due to new internal conflicts (interstate, inter-group etc) began to shift focus from the state to the people. This was consolidated in the UNDP report on human security in 1994, which recognised a widening concept of security (for livelihood, environmental, food security etc); this concept was also included in the world conferences for women’s and human rights in the late 90s and early 2000s. 

Professor Manchanda points out that women’s groups were the first to argue for peace and security. Feminists argued that missing in the human security discourse was gender since women’s experiences and gender discussions did not factor into the articulation of the dominant security discourse at the time. In response, feminists emphasised that women’s security was central to human security and cannot be ignored any longer. 

One breakthrough was the increased feminist scholarship on women in conflict zones as a crystallisation of the analysis by and of women facing conflict themselves (e.g. the Balkan conflict). Finally, in 2000, the UN Security Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) was passed, which was the first ever global recognition that women’s security is relevant to human security.

What is the Trajectory of the Women, Peace and Security Discourse?

It was women’s and NGOs’ grassroots level work, and of course, interventions by northern NGOs such as the Women’s International League for Freedom that dictated the WPS discourse. However, the role of the second world (i.e. the socialist world) in the coproduction of the WPS discourse was almost entirely written out. The southern feminists worked with the north but while the north’s objectives were fulfilled, the south’s expectations were disregarded. The south – obviously – could not lobby the same way as the north. Nor did it want its WPS agenda to be a part of the UN’s since this would have led to state-centric policies and actions, and the south believed that impact was possible only if WPS discussions were to happen in civil society. The state was driven by imperialist powers and decidedly not a comfortable space for disempowered people and women. The north saw things a different way and attempted to persuade the south that agencies like the UN were the ones who wielded the power to make decisions.  

What were the Gaps in the WPS Discourse?

The resolutions entirely removing demilitarization from the WPS agenda was a key concern since women view militarization as a big security threat. Gender perspectives were also missing, and gendered social roles that led to passive feminism and toxic masculine militaries were not discussed. 

The structural reasons for conflict – the unequal power relationships that enable war – should have been considered by the Resolutions. Their one-size-fits-all policy also disappointed, having failed to recognise that women in conflict areas have a very different understanding of security than women in non-conflict ones. Resolutions merely call for protecting women from sexual violence but this emphasises the dialectic of victimhood and wipes out their agency. 

Professor Manchanda also discusses the problems with the three pillars of the Resolutions. The first pillar, the participation of women in all areas of conflict, was never measured properly. The apparatus was not in place to do so leading to the proxy and misleading numbers. The second pillar, the over-emphasis on sexual violence, fostered the culture of “looking out” at violence than looking in (e.g. India would focus on violence at its borders with Pakistan than deal with internal violence). The third pillar focuses on preventing direct violence against women rather than on demilitarization i.e. it merely attempts to make war safer for women rather than doing away with war entirely

So what is the status of gender in the WPS discourse? Nations striving for gender equality in the armed forces further promote militarization. Leaning on motherhood politics reinforces female passivity and victimhood. White men descend to save brown women from brown men (to quote Gayatri Spivak), using this moral patina to justify their revenge attacks (e.g. US saviourism in Afghanistan and Iraq). And white women join forces with them distorting indigenous feminisms. 

Professor Manchanda asks the audience, “By folding more women into militarised institutions and culture, are we increasing security or insecurity?” She concludes that we need to redefine our understanding of security if we are ever to achieve global peace. 

#Aftermath || COVID-19 The New Normal

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COVID-19 The New Normal: Militarization and Women’s New Agenda in India

By Dr. Asha Hans

Dr. Asha Hans is ex- Co-Chair, Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy; former Professor of Political Science, and Founder Director, School of Women’s Studies, Utkal University, India. A leading campaigner of women’s rights, she has participated in the formulation of many conventions in the United Nations.

The COVID-19 crisis started in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and has since then impacted millions globally including people of India. In these months we have observed the breakdown of the existing systems and structures. It seems to many of us that it is the end of civilization as we know it, but there is also a recognition that it is providing us an opportunity to reflect on the future we want.

The existing ‘normal’ that surfaced in COVID-19 despite a crisis are the inequalities, the persistent masculinity, and the unrelenting patriarchal system that continues to survive. The ‘normal’ is also the continuing dependence on a discordant and inhumane national security system, which has unwarranted power and control over its citizens. The security system continues to stay alive despite the global pandemic, without facing challenges except peace educators and activists. We, the peace advocates, feel that the pandemic is giving us a new opportunity to create a world dedicated to the well-being of all people on this planet. This would mean, equality for migrants, domestic workers, Dalits, people with disabilities and various others. Many of those trying to bring these issues to the forefront of the human rights discourse are women writers and advocates who feel that the disproportionate impact on women merits change.

When I say that the ‘new normal’ is the continuing inequality and the robust masculinity I draw this argument from the vocabulary of COVID-19. It is the language being used which is overwhelmingly hostile as the pandemic has brought in new words that are being increasingly linked to violence and rising fascism. Primarily the word being used is ‘lockdown’ providing a new image of security, where if you agree to a policed closure of a geographical field you are agreeing to a ‘new normal’ depiction of safety1. The recent flow of domestic migrant labourers in India from their workplace to their home, mostly situated in a rural locale, and the women within their homes facing extreme domestic violence highlight the mythical assumption that lockdowns create security.

Security we believe has to fulfill basic needs and prevent violence. These two ideas of what we consider as the universal aims of security include the thousands of men, women, and children walking home. The State in the last few months has not fulfilled these requirements, for instance food insecurity has been the basic reason for migrants walking the long march home. Movement of thousands of returnees was prompted by the employer not paying their wages and the landlord of the house demanding rents. With no wages, no shelter, and no money it is not surprising that thousands took to the road during a lockdown. The police attempted to stop them using physical force and sexual abuse, there was no transport, and hundreds of government directives with none catering to them did not break their resolution or their spirit. The other myth broken is related to the specific security of women, as domestic violence during the lockdown increased, and supporting structures broke down 2. We need to recognize that women are not a homogenous group and that some women such as those with disabilities or LGBTIQ face more and varied forms of violence. Protecting women from domestic violence is neither on the agenda of the State or society during the lockdown and as the system of security collapses, many women are targeted to extreme violence. The house policed by the patriarchal system becomes a prison imposed by the family and not contested by the society or State. In an analogy of the State and militarization that applies to women is the remark of a Kashmiri friend who said for them it was ‘from a lockup to a lockdown’.

There is an intense nature of the corona risk affecting women which goes beyond domestic violence to a broader world of aggression. COVID-19 has created a fear psychosis with a language borrowed from militarist lexis. An illustration of the usual expression used by the government has been, “Join the War against COVID-19: Register as a volunteer to fight against the spread of the coronavirus. It is an apt example as it creates an image in our minds of States before a war-making a call to its citizens to join the armed forces. The stronger vocabulary used by the media is their response to the coronavirus as waging a ‘war’, ‘battle’,  ‘India’s war against COVID-19’3. Even people are depicted as ‘curfew violators’ facing extreme violence by the police. The use of violence is a value that encroaches on citizen’s spaces and promotes the use of force to resolve essentially civilian issues. The militarized state measures are counter-intuitive to women’s security, and in any response to change the situation it is the feminist approach which must be considered as important to end violence against women. Though women front-line workers, nurses and others involved in taking care of the corona virus have been designated as “Corona Warriors” being instrumental in the ‘war’ against the coronavirus4. Unfortunately, these warriors have been both underpaid by the State and now unprotected without the shields necessary when going into war zones.

The State narrative in India has always been that armaments are essential to security and in this paradigm peace dialogue is the outlier. There is thus no public discourse on violence used by the State when protecting its citizens. It is not only structures but attitudes that can be militarized and military culture including patriarchal, instill in society the concept of power as a force. Regimes use hyper-nationalism to keep themselves in power. This construction of the nation-state in a patriarchal set up is built on male privilege and the issue of male-female equality does not rise.  When such vocabulary is used it militarizes the public mindset, and violence becomes the public normal.

Women across the world, including India, have been suffused with militarist doctrines, developed to use maximum force against the enemy, and continues to be used even whilst the virus is attempting to enter into the physical body of its people a disease which weapons could not kill. Violence, especially gendered, is a daily occurrence heightened by the presence of armed or police forces. Created by a patriarchal system establishing inequalities, threatening survival, and creating insecurities, the removal of these barriers become imperative to the realization of a safe system for women.

The pandemic is a moment that is epidemiological but also political both linked to security and needs to be recognized in the context of comprehensive human security. During COVID-19 there should have been a critique of dangers posed by India’s high budget on armaments at the expense of a good public health system, an important basic need for women who have low access to health services especially sexual and reproductive health care, but it did not take place. What also did not get accentuated, in the public debate on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is most importantly any linking to look-alike imagery of what would happen if biological warfare by a State or bio-terrorism that could take place in the future. It should have made us realize that biowarfare, for which tests are on, does not stop at borders and impacts the enemy as well as the State that uses it. As a response to the crisis, the expanded stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics, containment laboratories and research into new drugs and bio-detectors have created, it seems, scaling up a system of bio-warfare. Besides this factor, is the demonstration of armed power. The ‘fly-bys’ used by the Indian Air Force, to shower flowers, was a nationalist demonstration of power disregarding the hunger and pain of the migrants, including women and children, walking on the road. A nationalist demonstration of power became more important than fulfilling the basic needs of vulnerable people. Instead of these two processes to protect people from the virus, what were the required responses, starting in the initial days of the emergency situation, as corona stepped into the country should have been building more public hospitals, clinics, and upgrading health care services? The spread of the virus can even now be slowed down through surveillance and massive campaigns against it and not force.

In an already inflicted system, unnecessary sufferings are imposed on the poor. It is time to recognize that this system of violence will become entrenched so it must be challenged as the well being of the human family depends on its removal. Seen from the experience of women, revealed is the security deficit of the system during COVID-19. The alternative to this system is a human security system to replace the militarized security framework. It is a system derived to protect people and not the interest of the state. This security paradigm with four essential conditions, a life-sustaining environment; the meeting of essential physical needs; respect for the identity and dignity of persons of groups; and protection from avoidable harm and expectation of remedy for unavoidable harm 5. Health in a COVID-19 situation can be analyzed not as a medical but as a human security problem as it takes advantage of poverty, inequality, and hunger

What then is the ‘new normal’ emerging from COVID-19? We have to recognize that warlike situations exist on three of India’s international borders (with China, Pakistan and Nepal). This with the corona situation shows the lapses in policy that allowed a war-like situation as sustained dialogue has not been part on Indian policy. Feminist writers on women and militarism have contributed to the solution to the corona situation. Enloe suggests that we must “mobilize society today to provide effective, inclusive, fair, and sustainable public health, we need to learn the lessons that feminist historians of wars have offered us. To do that, we need to resist the seductive allure of rose-tinted militarization. Reardon looks forward and says that,”While the realization of the common destiny of humanity may well be a given to peace educators, even we ourselves, still do not have adequate conceptual and pedagogical repertoires to confront pandemics as a given of a common human future”.

It is time to start the pedagogic imagining and structuring a future world that will lead to new opportunities. We must work in collaborative ways and rethink the way we think of ending militarization. The questions before us are: what is normal and just and how do we protect our fundamental rights when men’s and women’s rights are trampled on? In this context questions peace educators and activists should be asking what the appropriate language should be used to create a new alternative? How do we work in collaborative ways? We also need to ask: How do we stop this militaristic adapted violence from becoming the ‘new normal’ in our lives? Are we prepared to re-imagine new worlds where security is not dependent on force but recognition of an interdependent world of peace?

To create this world would mean recognition of women’s equal status and their solidarity in the face of masculine force. To recognize that a sharing of resources during the pandemic would lead to another new step that we have refused to take; aiming to reduce this gap would mean achieving people’s well being. We have to develop a new language, and our imaginations to find new pathways to peace, a new alternative to create a ‘new normal’ for a world hurting with militarization. The vocabulary of a world of peace which would make it easier to bear the toughness of COVID-19.


  1. On 25th March 2020 the Government of India announced a complete lockdown
  2.  Deccan Herald April 13, 2020.
  3. The Hindu 8, May 2020
  4. India Today 11 April, 2020
  5. Reardon Betty and Asha Hans, 2019, The Gender Imperative: State Security vs Human Security, Routledge London, and New York. 2nd ed. : 2.