Recognizing the positive role women can play in reducing gun violence, Binalakshmi “Bina” Nepram is pioneering the micro-disarmament movement in India by involving and empowering women most affected by violence.
The New Idea
Bina recognizes women as a critical force, at both policymaking and community levels that can reduce the availability, misuse, and demand of small arms in society. She brings the micro-disarmament movement to the household and community level by creating new roles for women to check the availability and usage of small arms and deal with consequences of armed societies.
One aspect of Bina’s idea focuses on working with the Central Government to redraft and tighten gun legislation, factoring in gender insecurities into the law through the Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI), founded in 2004. The second layer of her idea guarantees that new policies are built and reinforced by the most affected communities through the Manipuri Women Gun Survivors Network (MWGSN). Founded in 2007, MWGSN rehabilitates, empowers, and engages women survivors in micro-disarmament. Recognizing that citizens will not engage in larger issues unless immediate economic needs are met, MWGSN adds a unique economic perspective to the micro-disarmament movement by providing women survivors’ access to different services such as bank accounts and interest-free loans to start income-generating activities. With this as an entry point, MWGSN educates women on human rights issues, the legal redress system, and also provides a platform to have their opinions heard by policymakers.
Bina is creating a critical mass of women at the national and regional decision-making levels by building networks of women lawyers, writers, researchers, and members of parliament to engage and develop means to eradicate weapons from individual households and society at-large. By focusing her solution on reducing the tools of violence in society rather than the roots of conflicts, Bina is able to take the issue of disarmament outside conflict zones to police officials, youth, and ordinary citizens to create roles for everyone to be a part of the solution.
According to a United Nations survey, with 40 million firearms, India is the second most heavily armed country in the world, with a majority of these arms in the hands of civilians. In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh alone, there are 900,000 arms license holders and almost twelve Indians are killed each day as a result of small arms violence.
Small arms licenses are easily granted in India, and punishment for holding unlicensed arms is lenient. Adding to this problem is the fact that India also has a flourishing illegal firearms industry. It is relatively simple to buy or access weapons with prices as low as US$4 for locally made arms and ammunition. While the manufacturing and sale is illegal, the small size of these weapons coupled with the laxity of enforcement machinery makes them easily accessible. This availability fuels violence and conflicts, and with loopholes in gun laws combined with the nexus among the police, traders, and criminals, helps the industry thrive. Equally important is the fact that India does not have policy to provide compensation or rehabilitation to the large number of victims and survivors of armed violence.
Women suffer the most, directly and indirectly, as a result of firearm usage. Out of the 90 percent of people killed in armed conflict by small arms, a staggering 80 percent are women and children. Women also suffer indirectly from the loss of male relatives to gun violence, when they are forced to become the main breadwinners and primary caretakers of a household. However, only 8 percent of women worldwide are involved in conflict resolution and in the disarmament movement, and this number is much lower in India. The damage that women suffer from the availability and misuse of guns is disproportionate to their own role as owners or users. Women’s perspective, experience, and capacities as peacebuilders remains largely underutilized and their role in conflict resolution and micro-disarmament minimal.
Bina views micro-disarmament as a process that is dependent on a myriad of factors such as the state’s ability to protect its citizens, economic opportunities, and the degree to which guns have become accessible and legitimate within society. She believes micro-disarmament requires a combination of effective law and policy, action by law enforcement, and specific grassroots efforts aimed at the populations most affected by violence, particularly women. Rooted in the belief that women are highly invested in preventing, stopping and recovering from conflict, she sees women playing a critical role in the micro-disarmament movement.
Bina employs an array of strategies to enhance public security by reducing the availability and access to tools of violence. On one hand, she researches and advocates for policy changes at the national and international level. On the other, to support her work at the policy level, she builds platforms for women, to play an important role in not only changing the laws, but also creating a national movement against violence.
Given that the micro-disarmament movement in India is at its nascent stages, CAFI extensively researches the field to map the problem and identify strategic points of intervention. CAFI then works with various departments of the government to include the debate around small arms into their agenda and action. For instance, CAFI is working with the Central Government to redraft and tighten Indian arms legislation. Among other things, it advocates for a centralized registry of all licensed arms in India to keep track of the movement of guns from one state to the other, and tighter standards for granting arms licenses. Further, Bina’s field experience showed that women, living and working close to the roots of violence, know the risk of having a weapon at home and this helps to convince men to give them up. She sees trained and empowered women as essential agents of change in halting small arms violence. In this context, CAFI also demands that the female member of the family (e.g. wife, mother, or sister) ask to have justified why the male member should be granted a firearm license. Having gained the support of seventy-two parliamentarians from across the country, CAFI has submitted these recommendations in the form of a bill. Additionally, CAFI has also succeeded in pushing the Government of India to provide compensation to landmine victims in the state of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time.
As the arms trade is a market-driven global phenomenon and controlling it requires a global approach, Bina is also actively involved in advocating for policy shifts at the international level. She played an instrumental role in the signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which successfully banned the cluster bomb all over the world. She also advocates and pushes for the Indian government to lead discussions around the execution of the international Arms Trade Treaty, under which governments will be accountable for the purchase and sale of arms from within their jurisdiction.
Bina has built and supported her work at the policy level, by actively engaging citizens, particularly women. Seeing that the immediate need of women survivors is economic sustainability, Bina started MWGSN in the state of Manipur with the intention to lift women above the trauma and agony they faced in conflict. MWGSN works with local women and youth groups, to identify women survivors who need economic assistance. It then takes a unique approach to disarmament by providing women survivors with bank accounts, access to finance, and training to initiate small ventures. Through this entry point, MWGSN engages women to start meeting every month, discuss human rights issues, and receive training on legal redressal mechanisms. MWGSN has also built a network of women lawyers to represent the cases of survivors.
This timely and direct intervention builds a strong relationship among the women, supports them economically and brings them forward to play a crucial role in micro-disarmament. Over the last few years, women survivors have directly represented their cases and put pressure on local, national, and international policymakers including the United Nations for disarmament. Three survivors have launched organizations to tackle issues associated with armed violence and conflict. This initiative has expanded from the state of Manipur to Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Rajasthan, and Kashmir. Bina is now collaborating with the Self Employed Women’s Association, Ashoka Global Academy Member Ela Bhatt’s organization, to make the organization sustainable.
Bina believes that if women are involved in decision-making and creating policies, they will open a wider perspective to human security. To achieve this, she has created a network of ninety-two women parliamentarians apart from writers, journalists, researchers, activists, and policymakers who have begun to engage with issues surrounding micro-disarmament in different capacities. Bina builds on this network to sensitize and engage more young people and women to democratize participation in the movement. She has already started an “Anti-Gun Violence Campaign” to work with 120 schools in Delhi to sensitize school authorities and students. Bina also intends to empower women survivors by creating training opportunities to market their products locally and play a greater role within their communities. To increase international pressure on the Arms Trade Treaty, she works closely with organizations in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and the International Action Network on Small Arms for the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons.
Bina was born in 1974 in the state of Manipur which has been facing ethnic-based armed conflicts since the late 1940s. Surrounded by armed violence, curfews, and massacres throughout her childhood, Bina grew up thinking this environment was normal and ordinary. Deeply etched in her memory is the aftermath of the Heirangoithong massacre of 1984; thirteen civilians were shot by the security forces. In 1997 Bina lost her 13-year-old niece in a bomb blast.
It was only when Bina moved to New Delhi to pursue her education that she realized the situation she grew up in was not normal. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in History and M.Phil and Ph.D. in International Relations. During this period, she stumbled onto a UN document titled Trafficking in Small Arms and Sensitive Technologies that opened her eyes to the nexus between armed violence and narcotics in the global context. Connecting this with her personal experiences and shocked by the lack of any Indian research on the subject, she extensively researched and mapped the arms proliferation in Northeast India, by traveling and living with insurgents, victims, and survivors for over a year. Discovering how arms and narcotics fuel political violence, she published her research findings as a book, South Asia’s Fractured Frontier (2002).
This book became the defining work on small arms in India. Recognizing her work, she was invited to address the UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in 2003. On her return to India, Bina noticed that there was no concerted action by civil society around small arms and disarmament. She organized several meetings across the country and called upon the Government of India to take action. Although the Indian government kept submitting reports to the UN claiming its compliance with the program, Bina realized that work was never translated on the ground.
It was at this time that insurgents had threatened Bina’s parents and burned the school her mother was running. While her family had to vacate their ancestral house and hide for six months, Bina approached various human rights groups to mobilize support for her parents, though she did not receive any.
Disillusioned by this and driven to take her work beyond activism, Bina mobilized civil society in 2004 and founded CAFI. The same year, on Christmas Eve, while visiting community women leaders in a village in Manipur, she witnessed the aftermath of the killing of a 27-year-old man at his car workshop in front of his wife, Akham Rebika. She was horrified that the first reaction of Rebika’s mother was “How can I feed you anymore? They should have shot you also.” That was a turning point for Bina. She realized that she could not just play a role in research and advocacy, but she should also build platforms for women like Akham to have a better life, engage with other women in similar conditions, and lead a movement against armed violence. Bina started by mobilizing funds to buy Akham a sewing machine to ensure she could feed her family, live a normal life, find justice for herself, and engage with other women to build lasting peace.