Last week, the Indian Ordinance Factory, Kanpur announced that it had designed and manufactured a .32 bore lightweight revolver for women, priced ₹1,22,360 and to be sold in “specially designed boxes lined with velvet to make them more attractive”. The gun was evocatively named “Nirbheek.”
Commentators have pointed out that guns rarely make anyone safe, and guns that cost over ₹1 lakh will secure those who can already afford security. Moreover, a gun will not protect someone from violence within the home.
Women’s groups usually prefer to put guns away in the interests of safety rather than pull them out and put women indoors; this is an opportunity to reflect on their activism to this end.
Simplified ideas about womanhood correlate femininity with motherhood and assume that all women being (or potentially being or feeling mainly like) mothers, must abhor violence and bloodshed. Therefore, it is “natural” for women to favour gentler modes of human interaction and to oppose (in a motherly way) the use of landmines, small and large weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. To rehearse that view would be to caricature over a century of peace activism by women and decades of feminist scholarship on conflict and violence.
Having said that, it is true that motherhood is often a pivot around which women mobilise for peace work. Motherhood offers an easy entry point into the public sphere despite patriarchal ideas about women belonging to the private sphere. And for individual women, it has often been concern about male family members that has motivated them to step outside the home. Disappearances, whether in conflict or under dictatorship, have usually been the prompt.
Mothers’ organisations were formed in Argentina and Chile, and later in El Salvador, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay; their objective was to draw attention to their children who had disappeared during the years of authoritarian rule in these countries. The official figures remain much lower than the Mothers’ estimations, and even now, their struggle continues.
Closer home, Parveena Ahangar’s Association Of Parents Of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir and Visaka Dharmadasa’s Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action are examples of mothers taking the political lead to locate people missing in conflict.
In Nagaland, we also have the example of the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA). With “Shed No More Blood” as their motto, the association, which is open to every Naga woman who is a mother, has worked on the ground to defuse tensions as they rise. They approach and speak to leaders on all sides, asking that violence be avoided. The NMA has also built bridges within Naga groups. Motherhood has outweighed gender to provide women with access and agency that formal political and peace processes deny.
But women’s groups do not oppose arms just because they are mothers or might be motherly. It is their lived reality that governs their opposition to the proliferation of weapons and to militarization, in general.
The International Action Network on Small Arms reports from research by IANSA members across the world to say that guns or access to guns are used routinely to threaten, intimidate or facilitate violence against women. Women’s organisations support arms control and disarmament programmes because small arms and light weapons are often used to facilitate sexual and gender-based violence, but during and outside conflict contexts. Research shows that when there are guns handy, they are likely to be also used in domestic violence. In the American context, where there is a constitutional right to bear arms, the presence of a gun in the home was found to increase the risk of suicide among women fivefold and the risk of homicidal violence against them threefold. If acts of sexual and gender-based violence are a leading cause of death among women, the proliferation of small arms has been seen to contribute to making them more fatal towards women.
In post-conflict settings or in highly militarised contexts, where violence is the lingua franca of politics, the habit of brutality carries over into homes. Rehn and Sirleaf’s now-classic assessment on Women, War and Peace drew out these connections clearly. Demobilised soldiers and surrendered militants, for instance, can be violent in their private interactions. If demobilisation is not accompanied by disarmament, this means they keep weapons that can be used against family members or others in the community. Given the challenges of reintegrating them into society and helping them find a livelihood, if disarmament does not accompany demobilisation, then these former soldiers are available to organised crime, for political violence and can take to random thuggery. (Demobilised women soldiers have other problems that we can discuss in another column.)
Militarised settings – which include areas where police or army action is common and they are a visible presence, or where non-state armed groups are active – build this violence into the very fabric of everyday actions and interactions. Neighbours become informers, and trips to buy tomatoes end in death.
It is not just sexual and gender-based violence that women’s organisations worry about, but also the long-term implications of living with anxiety about the safety of one’s family, of strategising every excursion and limiting one’s movements outside, of limiting one’s life-chances because of safety concerns and of living with increasingly severe and violently imposed moral policing.
Guns, literally and metaphorically, change the quality of life drastically in such places. Everything is fragile. Men are more likely to lose their lives in these situations, and the women who are left to rebuild the peace become very invested in ending violence. The Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network is an example of women’s activism motivated by such experiences.
Women oppose the proliferation of guns and light weapons not because they have motherly instincts but because they see that easy access to these has a negative impact on everyday life. They present an increasing risk and fear of violence and intimidation as a result of which education, livelihood and quality of life are affected in the moment and in the future. Living with injury, trauma and bereavement is hard; to find yourself responsible for your household without any means and without the freedom to step out for fear of violence is an impossible situation. Small weapons bring that risk of violence into the home, into service spaces (like hospitals and schools), and into the workplace. And at the end of it, these weapons do not secure lives, in the public or the private sphere.
Do guns cause violence? Of course not, people use guns to cause violence. However, the easy availability of guns makes it possible for anyone to use them without much thought. In an age where we oscillate between seeking excuses for violence and bloodthirsty outrage, the commercial availability of another small weapon cannot be good news for anyone – even if it comes packaged in an attractive velvet-lined box.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist who writes about gender and international relations. Much of her research is on women, violence and conflict. She is also the founder of The Prajnya Trust, a non-profit centre working on peace, justice and security issues, including women's rights and violence against women.