Two Indian women, one Muslim and the other Dalit (former untouchables), separated by culture and geography, have found common ground to lead change in conflict-torn South Sudan.
Rama Hansraj, a Dalit, grew up in a humble railway colony in Secunderabad. Huma Khan, a Muslim, born and raised in the controversial northern Indian city of Faizabad, now Ayodhya, home to the demolished Babri Masjid. Both agree that their personal experiences of discrimination in India and around the world led to their decision to work in the international humanitarian field in conflict zones.
Women are activists and feminists who, through their experiences of struggle and years of working with the most marginalized in India, have decided to work in geographies and contexts that many would normally avoid.
“What else do you expect someone who grew up five kilometers (three miles) from the disputed Babri Masjid site in an atmosphere of constant conflict and community strife, to want to continue?” Khan said in an exclusive interview with IPS. She was responding to a question about why she chose to work in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan instead of choosing a more comfortable position.
In her last role in South Sudan, Khan was the Senior Advisor on Women’s Protection, leading the section on conflict-related sexual violence at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). She is now a Senior Human Rights Advisor to the United Nations in Bangladesh.
Hansraj, Country Director for Save the Children in South Sudan, told IPS how her fieldwork in India and her interactions with the development sector motivated her to take positions outside the country and institutions with decision-making powers.
âFor us Dalits, accessing basic facilities like education and land is a challenge. We face discrimination even in times of disaster, âshe said, sharing her post-tsunami work experience in India.
Here she saw how the disaster-affected Dalits were not even allowed to queue up like others to receive basic aid.
âWe have started to work on developing principles for disaster donors, emphasizing that they need to look at vulnerabilities within the response and how recipient selection needs to be more inclusive. It was then that I saw that not working in these large organizations would not help us, ârecalls Hansraj.
Khan spent many years in Gujarat as an independent activist living in resettlement settlements after the 2002 community violence. There she worked to help rebuild communities and assist in the case of a survivor of a gang rape. Her lived experiences have made her âunabashedly Muslimâ.
She recalled that she had refused to share the stage during an event organized by an international NGO where women had to âreveal themselvesâ as a symbol of their liberation.
âIt was a month after 9/11 that I had planned a study and work trip to the United States that I didn’t want to cancel,â Khan said. “I was thrown at me and called a ‘Taliban’ while walking on a street in the United States because I covered my head to escape the cold.”
Hansraj has been part of anti-caste movements for as long as she can remember, and split-caste discrimination crosses borders and continents and is not just an âIndian problemâ.
âCaste travels where Indians travel, and the international development sector is no exception. Indians abroad always assume that I am of the high caste, because if not, how could I hold such high positions, as a Dalit, âshe said sarcastically.
Hansraj and Khan were both Ford Foundation Fellows and got their first international academic exposure with the scholarship.
One of the factors that pushed them to leave India for difficult positions in countries like Yemen (for Hansraj) and Darfur and Afghanistan (for Huma) was their disappointment with the development sector in India and its treatment of Muslim and Dalit communities.
âEven if you work for a Dalit organization, the funding decisions still rested with the upper caste members of the international NGOs, who basically made the decisions for us,â says Hansraj.
âEven today, most positions of power in the development sector are held by upper caste individuals who decide what to fund and what not to fund, instead of letting us decide our own issues.
Khan, who co-founded the feminist rights and rights group AALI in India, also felt that the space to develop, especially for a Muslim woman in the development sector in India, was shrinking, those occupying powerful posts continuing to do so for decades.
The two women worked in South Sudan for almost three years. When Khan left the country at the end of last year, she became a senior human rights adviser to the UN in Bangladesh. Hansraj continues to lead Save the Children in South Sudan.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, having gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011. Since then, the country has experienced constant instability and conflict.
Khan and Hansraj, in leading roles, have led interactions, negotiations, and led advocacy and action-oriented processes with the country’s leaders, tribal leaders and community elders.
Constant armed dissension and confrontations with former armed groups where negotiations were necessary to free abducted women or children, or both did not deter them.
âMy team and I were able to facilitate the process of freeing the women who were abducted, mostly as sex slaves, in the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan. Dealing with the rulers of the capital Juba was one thing, and negotiating with the commanders on the ground was a threat to us and especially to these women, âKhan recalls. Negotiations led to the release of dozens of women and children, many of whom were victims of repeated rape, sexual slavery and forced marriages by members of the opposing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-IO) .
âFor me, my identity and experiences as a marginalized person means that I can relate to communities affected by conflict and communities that have been deprived of their fundamental freedoms, like South Sudan,â says Hansraj.
Hansraj recounted how she lived in constant fear of being raped while in the country in 2015-2016, after witnessing break-ins and rampant sexual violence.
âHere, women and children are kidnapped during the looting of cattle. There is intercommunal violence. In India, women and children from Dalit communities have been abducted and trafficked for centuries for forced labor and sex work, âshe said.
Hansraj feels that she has imported herself into such a similar and heartbreaking context that she sometimes finds herself caught between emotions and practicalities.
Two Indian women, one Muslim and the other Dalit (former untouchables), separated by culture and geography, have found common ground to lead change in conflict-torn South Sudan. MARIYA SALIM reports:
Mariya Salim is a member of the IPS UN board
Inter Press Service