The injustice of it all


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AN unforgettable learning experience on safeguarding peace and women’s role in that effort was during my first visit to Sri Lanka, in 1968, where the talk of the town was about the Mothers for Peace. Looking back, all aspects of that time appear surrealistic.

The visit was to participate as a junior rapporteur at a conference convened by the International Economics Association on the economies of India and Pakistan! Professor K.N. Raj on this side and Professor Nurul Islam on the other – it was a feast of bonhomie and shared hopes from shared knowledge to build an ‘Indo-Pak’.

My friend Kumari Jayawardane described how these ‘mothers’ from both Sinhalese and Tamil backgrounds, came out on to the streets when there was violence, and were able to arrest it by just scolding the young men involved. That was my first exposure to both the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, and also on ‘mothers’ engagement with resolving or struggling for peace.

And then of course, over time, I woke up to the flood of narratives that abound within the women’s movement on mothers’ efforts to arrest and deflate violent conflict – to build peace through their bonding across warring groups, as mothers.

But my journey did not end there – further exposure revealed women’s engagement with economic conflicts. For example, there are the narratives of women engaging in peaceful negotiation of conflict of interest in the environmental domain – like the Chipko Andolan protest against felling of trees in the Himalaya, or the protest by women street vendors in Manek Chowk in Ahmedabad against the reallocation of their space to a car park. These struggles reinvoke satyagraha, the Gandhian mode of fighting for justice, and there are dozens of such narratives from India and elsewhere.

But can we generalize that this peaceful negotiation of conflict is an attribute of women? That women are the best peace builders? And more importantly, should we do so?


There are other narratives of women using violent means to claim economic justice. There was the famous Nupi Lan, Manipur women’s war against the British colonizers who were interfering in the wholesale trade in rice which was in the women’s domain. The Nupi Lan burnt down the house of the then British Resident. And then there are the women to women conflicts – often violent – that women wage everyday in the cities around the water tap, in the villages around the well, in the jhuggis. Women are also joining the violent wars for land rights, for ethnic rights, for all the issues and items for which wars are fought.

Therefore, taking an essentialist view that there is a natural link between women and peace needs some reflection and modification. The association between women and peace draws on larger stereotypes of men and women and ideas of masculinity and femininity in order to create an image of ‘women’ as mothers – nurturing, caring, egalitarian and cooperative, and ‘men’ as competitive, aggressive, hierarchical and risk taking. What is necessary, and perhaps useful, is to understand that peace is a process which requires the disbanding of structures of oppression, inequalities in people’s access to power, and the overall presence and experience of injustice.

Examples abound of the links between gross neglect, inequality, exclusion and conflict, including terrible wars. The Philippines is home to two of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts in Southern Mindanao. The 2005 Philippines Human Development Report, with the theme of Peace, Human Security and Human Development in the Philippines reveals that four out of the five worst-off provinces are also the site of the Moro conflict, and their human development levels are comparable to the world’s poorest countries in Africa. ‘This Report is the first quantifiable documentation to show that cultural isolation, discrimination and a lack of basic services such as electricity, water, roads and education can be predictors of armed encounters,’ said Professor de Dios, the report’s lead author.

The Naxal dominated districts in India also hold the same distinction – they not only have some of the worst human development as well as economic indicators in India – but equally that the communities living there have been victims of injustice, anyaya, as Amartya Sen would say, something deeper and broader than niti, law. This has been the underlay for the armed conflict.


The views of women, active in both the theoretical and practical processes of peacemaking, suggest the need to move beyond simply incorporating a ‘women’s perspective’ or claiming that their societal roles give them generic values in peace building. The argument of this paper is that it is only through building economically just and politically democratic systems that enduring peace can be put on the ground, and that women’s particular experience of injustice, their reconstruction of economic reasoning, as well as their special location and experience in grassroots and community oriented work, gives them both the intellectual and practical skills for building those peaceful spaces. In that sense Gandhi’s thought: ‘The women of India should have as much share in winning swaraj (freedom) as men. Probably in this peaceful struggle woman can outdistance man by many a mile,’ is sophisticated and appropriate, in that he first posits equality of presence and then the firmness of women who can outdistance men.


There is work to be done in this field of enabling and safeguarding peace through deeper reconstruction of political economy, and several women’s networks, national and international, are engaging themselves, especially post the global financial crisis, in this challenging task. For example, the eminent feminist scholar, Fatema Mernissi, initiated an international network of feminists, the Casablanca Dream (, and urged the women to ‘weave peace into globalization.’

‘Why are human beings,’ she asks, ‘who have dreamed since the dawn of civilization of flying and of developing wings to move faster and cross familiar boundaries to discover the unfamiliar, now afraid of globalization?’ Her works such as the Digital Scheherzade argues that women are being liberated by the internet, both from the dominance of the mullahs as well as their society, and that by itself globalization is not the adversary. Berber women from the Atlas mountains are now putting their carpets on sale on-line and receiving payments far beyond their imagination. Therefore, women need to intervene in those macro economic debates, and reconstruct the ethic of globalization rather than merely stage broad protests.

Dream, Fatema suggests, is not to be juxtaposed with reality. Dream is where we cut through the bog in our minds and see clarity, give birth to new ideas. Dream is when you travel, like Sinbad, who travelled the seas, making friends, learning about the ‘other’, and absorbing the difference through knowledge. Fatema juxtaposes Sinbad as this Sufi seeker and builder of friendship with the Cowboy, with two pistols ready to fire at any newcomer, aggressive as she sees the culture of the West. Hence, the Casablanca Dream aims to give birth to new ideas and spread the message of Adab.


The argument here is that feminists, women, need to rebuild intellectual paradigms, concepts, naming of phenomena, methods, even definitions of ethics, freedoms and liberty from their particular spaces and work. Ideas have moved the world more significantly than money or campaigns. Economic theories in the main drawing either from Marx or Adam Smith or even the more recent Keynes, are all ideational treatises on the how to. Thus lobbying and advocacy needs to shift from the particular – such as more seats here and there, gender equality, mainstreaming, and so on – to challenging the economic and political processes, the reasoning and vocabulary that underpins the theories, with new ideas in macroeconomics, new political arrangements and the link between a just politics with a just economics as the foundation for enabling peace, or avoiding conflict and wars.

Starting with the idea that reasoning in economics needs to get the fundamentals right, the Casablanca Dream offered a new framework for gender and development which is hinged on the goal of enabling poor women to walk out of poverty, and for this the key words they offered was Women, Water and Wealth – women as the principal agents of change, water as the core issue – its deprivation as the core of what could be called women’s poverty as well as oppression, an environmental concern, and as the lead to the critique of privatization of basic amenities. Wealth with a double meaning, women as wealth, but also as dispossessed of wealth.

It is interesting, and affirming, that these three words are resonated by a grassroots movement, namely the SEWA trade union, as their theme words – though they substitute work for wealth.


Going further in a paper called ‘Vision for a Better World: From Economic Crisis to Equality’, written for the Beijing plus 15 meetings at the UN, in March 2010, the Casablanca Group proposed that the global meltdown, crises of contemporary development that was highlighted in 2009-10, was not only of finance and employment but also deprivation of food, water, energy, fuel and care, and growing environmental devastation – phenomena or problems that had been growing for decades well before the Lehman Brothers event in 2008.

The group has developed an analysis to reconstruct both economic reasoning as well as suggest an agenda for research and action by the feminist movement in order to build justice, or removal of injustice as the first and basic brick for building peace.

The key message of the paper is the need to construct economic democracy through a feminist perspective. Economic democracy is understood as a vehicle through which effective political democracy is achieved, rather than the other way around. During the neoliberal era, the implementation of the concept of political democracy was translated into free movement of capital. Financial markets then began to drive the economies generating not only sharp and embedded inequalities, but also leading to deprivation and hardships of many other kinds, whereas a just economy is a system founded on the principles of individual rights, democratic participation as well as mechanisms which enable accountability.


The emphasis then on economic democracy is to widen the basis of power, across economic classes and spaces and modes. In a sense this approach is similar to Gandhi’s ‘second freedom’. Gandhi called people’s buying habits their economic vote, and thus arguing that economic democracy would be one where the economic vote of the poorest would and should have the same power as that of the richest, and since the poor are many, it could turn the economy around into a more democratically built arrangement.

Whereas most theories of economic progress begin with production and surplus generation from which distribution would take place, called the ‘trickle down’ theory of growth that currently predominates in India, Gandhi’s prescription could be seen as the ‘bubbling-up’ theory of growth.

The bubbling up theory argues that the process of removal of poverty can itself be an engine of growth, that the incomes and capabilities of those who are currently poor have the potential to generate demand which in turn will power production, but of goods that are immediately needed by the poor that are currently peripheral in production. The oiling, then, of this engine will bubble up and fire the economy in a much more broad based manner. Unlike export-led growth, it will not skew production and trade into the elite trap, which is accentuating disparities and creating discontent.

These ideas are not fragmented to deal with specifics but are founded in an overall approach on what is economic and political progress, enshrining individual rights and sovereignty but ensuring that the basics – food, clothing, shelter and the right for self-determination – are at the centre. Their measures of success are not the rate of growth of GDP, or the value of trade but the spread of well-being.


There is a belief that the current crisis can be seen as an opportunity to move away from the export-led model, especially in the South, and focus instead on domestic and regional markets. At a summit of the IBSA group, i.e., India, Brazil, and South Africa, held in New Delhi in 2008, many of the early ideas of South-South Cooperation, such as building South-South banks, not only for finance but of grain, that is relocating the grain and commodity cartels that are located in the North and determine the price and flow of commodities in the South, were recommended.

But these ideas of solidarity are not on board any more. Even post-crisis, the economic revitalization regimes in most global forums as well as regional configurations, as also within countries, remain the same. They continue to spin around trade, capital inflow of foreign direct investment, and rates of GDP growth as indicating the health of a nation. The G-20 has fractured the South. Neither the Hunger Index nor the unemployment index nor the inequality index are being seriously used to measure progress.

In this scenario, there is I think a crying need to reconstruct the feminist development agenda, its signals and its language. For one, feminist generalizations even on the gendered impact of and thereby analysis of political economy policies and practices have to be modified, responding not only to the occupational characteristics of let us say female labour, but also the ground zero conditions of the very poor, especially women in our countries, where there is no unemployment insurance or other social securities provided by the state.

For instance, if we visualize a typical woman living on the pavement in say New Delhi – dirty, ragged with three semi-naked children around her, defecating right there, and cooking or trying to under a piece of cloth as shelter – one could certainly argue that she is a victim of the neglect of under valuing her care work, her unpaid work, a lack of support from her man, all priority concerns of the feminist agenda setters here. But her deepest desire, I would suggest, is for decent work through which she would access other needs, because wage work would give her the dignity as well the power to exercise her economic vote.


I recall a lesson I learnt about priorities in circumstances of deep deprivation from a remarkable current woman leader of India, Aruna Roy. Many decades ago we asked her to do a survey of cooking stoves used by rural households to promote the use of smokeless stoves in their dwellings. When she went to promote these new stoves the women told her, ‘we don’t mind the smoke at all, what we want is something in the pot to cook. In fact, smoke signals that there is food being cooked in a household, and that brings us izzat (dignity)!’

These are the cruel choices on the ground in our countries for women. Our priorities have to bend to accommodate them.

Coming then to where we can go further, there are many chinks in the armour of current mainstream economics through which we can enter. Let me set out a few as indicators.

The aim of research itself needs to change, go beyond the aim of revealing more, which explores and elaborates, to research which will bring change, to where the energy of the economy is coming from; and then where the incentives are going to; then to learn from and expand democratic enabling systems which are being practised.


There are many examples of how small local actions or initiatives have brought in food security, water availability, health for all, and so on. We need to see how macro-economics can absorb these ideas and methods and also how and whether the macro-economic incentives are enabling or disabling these positive endeavours.

Much work has been done in India and elsewhere on decentralized systems of governance and women’s participation in that structure. But it is also the case that the system is not yet fully supported by the states, nor is it revealing new paradigms of economic and political democracy. The overall economic policies as well as programmes are still locked in the old paradigm of trickle down, and handouts of social welfare. The domain of the panchayati raj systems are not defined to have the economic and political power to protect themselves or define their roads to progress.

In this landscape the bubbling up theory of growth could be tested in say four or five geographical areas. Studies/research can calculate: The GDP of an area, also the GNI – as it stands now; Identify where it come from – land based, farming or real estate, industry – small, large, export? home-based, informal; How much of GDP is wage; What is the nature of services sector in this area – domestic service predominates as the largest in India; We could also get the gini coefficient for this area; The number of BPL households, and so on.


Having collated this base line, a development plan can be prepared for the region to test out whether it is possible to stimulate a bubbling up growth that would generate sufficient demand to recast distribution? Build economic justice?

Similarly, we can take another of the feminist propositions, and test out whether a small woman farmer led approach to agriculture would lead to food security. Women constitute the major proportion of small farmers and usually produce food for the household and village. This would provide household level food security, a critical input to build peace, as nothing angers like persistent hunger and deprivation in the midst of plenty – ‘the rich are getting hungrier in India,’ says Amartya Sen in the New York Times.

We can engage with the new regionalisms that are mushrooming as a response to the earlier globalism. Here there are many conflicts where our intervention can be healing for women. Further, these are new spaces where there is a search for the terms of the regionalism.

We could argue for and construct a regional approach to development, e.g., a regional employment plan which investors and governments could follow such that there is a consolidation of power as well as cooperation to avoid the flea biting flea situation that has arisen in regions where MNC capital forages in our countries looking for cheaper and cheaper labour with weaker and weaker labour laws. This could in fact build peace and harmony in South Asia. Incidentally, such a plan of coordinating the individual country’s five year plans was attempted at one time through the research institutions of the individual countries. What a way to bring justice and peace into the region.

In terms of engagement with the macro, there is great opportunity in joining the strong critique of Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of economic success. There is a multitude of ideas for alternative indicators coming from environmentalists, anti-poverty groups and so on. But to find an indicator that can be universalized as Mahbub ul Huq did with his HDR, is a quest.

We could suggest new indicators like gendered unemployment figures according to sectors and levels of income with periodicities suitable to available official data, every five years.

We could suggest indicators of inequality, calculate and publish the changes in gini coefficient and factor them in as measures of non-progress and then further into economic reasoning.

This exercise could be added to the area specific testing of the bubbling up theory of growth.


And finally, the key to all this is organization of women as peace builders – unified and focused – to provide a political platform nationally for women’s economic ideas. With the moral underpinning of removal of poverty, rebuilding the political and economic landscapes to reverse inequality, exclusion, injustice, the women’s movement can be redeemed as a peace building movement.