Peace Teachers: The History of Tamang Women as Conflict Mediators And Why the Human Rights Movement Must Listen to Them
On March 10, Stella Tamang participated in a special workshop on the participation of indigenous women in conflict prevention, management, and resolution and post-conflict peace building. Tamang, of Nepal, is the chair of the Indigenous Womens Caucus of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the chair of the South Asia Indigenous Women Forum, and an adviser of the Nepal Tamang Women Ghedung. The workshop was organized in conjunction with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Edited excerpts of her remarks follow.
My presentation is to raise the voice of those women who are brave and are ready to die to protect and defend the children, the weak, and the elders, the animals and nature. Their contributions and sacrifices are never recognized or respected. They are shouting and screaming but they are not heard and seen.
We always hear sad stories of women and children dying in evacuation centers, caught in the crossfire, raped, sexually abused, and traumatized. Women are always depicted as mere casualties of war, weak, defenseless, needing protection, and crying for sympathy. Little is known about how women survive in conflict, how they protect and save the lives of thousands of children and elders, how they cope, and what they contribute toward rebuilding peace.
Armed conflicts are occurring in many parts of the world and have escalated over the last decade. They are taking the lives of many innocent civilians. As noted in paragraph 135 of the Beijing Platform for Action, "while entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism, women and girls are particularly affected because of their status in society and their sex." These days, women and children are the victims of gender-based and sexual violence, rape, forced prostitutions, trafficking, and forced recruitment in armed forces. It also is a fact that most of today's conflicts are taking place in the territories of indigenous peoples.
Armed conflict is not the choice of the women. It is undeniably a male-dominated, male-perpetrated game of aggression that claims innocent lives and displaces thousands of families. It is the men's creation to gain more power and more wealth. The worst pain-bearers of armed conflict are ultimately women and children. Armed conflict reveals the conflict between masculine qualities and feminine qualities. Masculine qualities are physical strength, power, anger, greed, and hatred. Feminine qualities are love, affection, forgiveness, and tolerance.
Today's conflicts are not based on human needs but on human greed for power and money, and the desire to conquer, control, and exploit nature and the environment. There are great efforts from some peoples to not let conflict be resolved but to manipulate it because they benefit from it.
Indigenous Women as Mediators and Negotiators
The present armed conflict between the government of Nepal's armed forces and the rebel Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has demonstrated a significant role for Nepali women. The armed conflict in Nepal is centered in the villages and districts inhabited by indigenous peoples. Now only women, elders, and children are seen in the villages since men and particularly youth are leaving to escape from both the parties to the conflict. The recent government policy of allowing the man-power companies to send men abroad is adding a burden on already heavily loaded women.
The Nepali indigenous women are now not only caretakers, food providers, and protectors of their families, but they are negotiators with the government security forces and the Maoist People's Liberation Army for the protection and the survival of their families. Women also hold responsible positions in each of the conflicting parties. They are in the forefront of armed conflicts, but given the choice this would not be what they would like to do.
We believe that women are born peacemakers. From the time of birth, Tamang women are taught and encouraged to mediate and resolve conflict between family members and between families. They will do anything to resolve conflict—from cooking special food, to performing rituals to provoke positive energy, to driving away the devil or evil spirits from the family. When there is conflict between two Tamang families, the highest valued and respected process for conflict resolution is for the women to take shyalgar, which contains chicken or goat limb, local wine, fruits, and breads covered with an auspicious scarf called a khata.
Women of other cultures play similar roles. Maranao women from the Bangsamoro peoples in the Philippines view themselves as "tiglimpyo sa mga hugaw sa katilingban" (cleaners of the dirt of the community). They usually play the role of mediators in conflict situations. Whenever there is family conflict, the woman addresses critical issues and brings the parties to settlement. Within Maranao culture, women do not consider themselves oppressed or exploited because they know their specific roles and place within the community, and are well respected and influential.
In the Arumanen Manobo tribe in Mindinao, women are sent to the enemy to settle conflicts. Arumanen Manobo women see this as a crucial role in their community, even at the risk of sacrificing their own lives. More often than not, the women are successful in the negotiation process and are able to prevent the conflict from escalating.
Maasai women and particularly mothers of warriors, who are called noongotonhe ilmuran, are so revered that no warrior would dare hurt them. Maasai women sometimes remove their olokesena (lower skirts or belts) to show their sympathy for both parties. They are mothers and cannot afford loss of life. Apart from the women, children, especially girls, can help to restore peace in a conflict situation. Their influence by even word of mouth can bring calm to a conflict.
Conflict resolution skills have to be cultivated and nurtured. Mothers are the first teachers. They shape our values, beliefs, spirituality, habits, practices, and even our biases and prejudices. I grew up hearing my mother say that life and conflict are synonyms. One must not run away from conflict and one must not be afraid of conflict. Good conflict mediation, facilitation, conflict resolution, and peacemaking are considered to be the quality of good women.
Invisibility of Women in the Peace Process
While existing customs and practices within our communities recognize the role of women as peace negotiators and mediators, the reality is that policies and systems have been put in place by outsiders that make these efforts and roles invisible. Our roles in the community as peace mediators seem to be but an extension of our role in the kitchen—that is, to keep the peace within the family and contain conflict among the children and family members. There is no formal, public, or official recognition of the role of women as peace negotiators.
How many women are involved in peace negotiations? In the case of Nepal, there have been two sets of peace talks. One woman was present on the government team, and there were none on the Maoist side. It is easy to predict what will happen at the negotiating table with only men around it. They will debate about weapons, territorial integrity, political power, self-determination, the constitution, power sharing, elections, international laws, and politically negotiated settlements—the so-called hard issues.
Women show the human face of the conflict. They will describe their lives in the evacuation centers, food blockades, sick children, orphans, widows, destroyed homes, schooling, medicines, trauma, and broken relationships. If we put women at the negotiating table, they will change the equation of the negotiation. They will introduce practical workable solutions to the conflict.
If women have already been playing the role of mediators and peacemakers in their communities, why is their expertise not recognized and tapped in official peace processes? We seem to have the distorted notion that men are meant to deal with public concerns and women are meant for private life. In Nepal, if we continue to exclude women, we can never complete this peace process. There is a need to elevate the status of women as mediators and negotiators of conflict from the community level to the official peace negotiations.
It is not that only women can bring everlasting peace. What is important is that we move in the right direction by bringing our sisters into this negotiation process. Then, perhaps, we can rebuild peace in our country for ourselves, our children, and the generation to come.