Rita Manchanda is Senior Program Executive at the South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) and holds an MA in Philosophy and International Relations from the University of Geneva. A journalist, writer, researcher and human rights activist, she has dedicated much of her work to bridging the deep divides between India and Pakistan. She advocates for the integration of women peacebuilders into the policy arena, firmly believing in the vision of alternate, people-focused security and the power of participatory democracy. She is also the founder and a national committee member of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, and an active member of the Indian nuclear disarmament movement. Her many publications include the edited volumes Women, War, and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency (Sage 2001) and States in Conflict with Their Minorities: Challenges to Minority Rights in South Asia (Sage 2010). Rita Manchanda is currently carrying out research for the PRIO project ‘Making Women Count for Peace: Gender, Empowerment and Conflict in South Asia’.
In a seminar at PRIO on 24 May 2013, Rita Manchanda talked about women’s mobilization and the significant agency of women in conflict situations in Kashmir and Northeast India. In Northeast India, the Naga peace process represents India’s paradigmatic conflict and peacemaking process. As described by Rita Manchanda, the protracted ceasefire in Nagaland has expanded the middle space for non-partisan civil society activism (including women’s groups) to initiate a significant reconciliation process, and new proposals for resolving decades-old problems. These new initiatives are associated with the emergence of a nascent middle class, which is the product of penetration of the Indian state and market. However, changes in elite stratification have produced not only growing tensions between the traditional elite and the ‘middle class’ professionals (women as well as men), but a particularly sharp gender-backlash. As in many identity-based struggles, there is now a backlash against translating women’s authority in the informal sphere of politics and peacebuilding into formal politics and peace negotiations. Women are pushed back by the valorization of customary laws and traditions as defining the community’s 'identity'. In the case of Kashmir, women and women’s groups such as the Muslim Khawateen Markaz have pushed for entry into the ‘separatist’ political forum of the Hurriyat Conference, but as described by Rita Manchanda, these women have been trivialized and even victimized. Women also continue to be marginalized and ignored in formal peace negotiations, especially by state agencies.