At any given point in time, there are a number of hot-button issues on the international security horizon. Some current concerns include the threat of chemical warfare in Syria, the dispute over the South China seas and the actions of proto-nuclear states like North Korea. The fact that such issues are fair game to the strategist is unsurprising. All of these threats easily stand to compromise the well-being of populations, the survival of any number of states and their ability to project power. The resulting preoccupation with national security as expressed in military terms seems both understandable and necessary. At the same time, however, analysts and policy-makers should not lose sight of non-traditional threats to human security.
In South Asia, recent events suggest that chief amongst these non-traditional threats might be violence against women. On December 16th 2012, a 23-year old female physiotherapy intern was gang-raped and beaten while on a bus in Delhi, India. The brutality of the incident has only magnified social awareness of the physical insecurity faced by women – not merely in India but across the region. Still entrenched in post-colonial state-building, the countries that comprise contemporary South Asia are home to some of the most volatile insurgencies and cross-border conflicts. With little recourse available through patriarchal politics, the region is also a hotbed of domestic violence, female infanticide, sexual harassment, child betrothals, honor killings and dowry deaths. The implications of violence against women are wide-ranging and yet, the threat still does not have that sense of urgency so vital for raising awareness, attracting resources and stimulating research. At least across South Asia, public policy formulation on the matter has been characterized by a subsequent malaise. Considering how women’s empowerment is a prerequisite for any number of development goals, it is about time that a region-wide call is made for securitizing this non-traditional threat.
Political scientist Swarna Rajagopalan’s op-ed on the exercise of redefining security provides some compelling arguments as to why violence against women is a legitimate threat deserving of political will and resources. In addition, the mechanisms recently instituted in India’s union territory of Chandigarh represent a fair start. Although there is more that can be done, the new levels of public sector engagement, police reform and corrective politico-legal action proposed in Chandigarh are worth replicating across the region. Still, there is a need to persuade the wider world that this issue is a justifiable threat. As the only significant regional body overseeing the interests of South Asia’s 1.64 billion people, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a viable target for this campaign.
There are admittedly many challenges to the securitization of violence against women. One intractable problem could be cases where the threat of such violence is embedded within yet other non-traditional security threats. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the physical insecurity faced by the women of the North and East is intensified by the security dilemmas already inherent in a post-conflict environment – displacement, detention, militarization, poverty and family fragility. Addressing violence against women then also requires addressing the problems that arise specifically from protracted armed conflict. An additional concern might be the risk of State interference with personhood in the name of security. As it stands, a looming culture war in India has raised concerns that recent events might result in the imposition of fresh restrictions that stifle rather than emancipate women.
The chilling omnipresence of patriarchy is one thing. It’s another thing to convince a regional body like the SAARC that violence against women is worth taking serious action. Even with the kinks in the plan, regional cooperation in women’s security is a potential route to long-term regional stability. South Asian security cooperation has long been hindered by the competing interests of the eight countries within the region. A case in point is the history of tensions and confrontational tactics between India and Pakistan. Amongst other things, it is a state of affairs that has generally undermined what Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit called the ‘commonality of perceptions’ necessary for a shared approach to regional security. Dixit even observed that South Asia’s way forward had to be through gradual endeavors in areas of regional security that were not subject to competitive political and territorial threat perceptions. The challenge of violence against women is one that sufficiently transcends national boundaries as to constitute a regional concern. If implemented successfully, a timely securitization act could go a long way towards catalyzing stronger protective mechanisms across South Asia.
Piyumi Kapugeekiyana is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, History and International Relations (Malaysia Campus). Her research explores counterinsurgency operations, hybrid warfare and military adaptation in the Sri Lankan Civil War (2006-2009).