On Thursday 4th October 2018, RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR) honoured Binalakshmi Nepram, a courageous human rights defender from the war-torn Indian state of Manipur. Binalakshmi grew up in Manipur, where day-to-day life is fragile with crossfire and violence on a daily basis, and lost her very young niece and nearly her parents. This became a turning point for her to mobilize women for the first ever ‘Women Gun Survivors Network’ in the country and to advocate for arms control. Binalakshmi is currently outside India, following threats against her by the Indian government. From there, and despite the danger she faces, Binalakshmi continues to campaign publicly for arms and gun control, the victims of the armed conflict in Manipur, and the rights of indigenous women.
On announcing the winners of the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Leila Alikarami, 2009 Award winner from Iran and a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“I am honoured to welcome Binalakshmi and Svetlana to RAW’s family. Despite grave challenges they have faced in their lives as activists, they have refused to be silenced and worked hard to spotlight concerns of women in their communities and around the world. We are living in a world filled with injustice and atrocities and the international community has failed to fully address the suffering of our fellow human beings.
Listening to the stories of Rohingya women, I became ashamed of humanity. In 2018, a woman told me how soldiers grabbed her baby by the leg and threw her onto the fire and how soldiers had executed the men and boys in her village, had made a bonfire of their bodies, had set their homes and villages on fire and then had taken the women to rape them. Unfortunately, it is not only the Rohingya women who are suffering militarism and violence.
Many women from conflict zones, from countries that are in war like Syria, Yemen and Palestine are fighting for peace, human rights and justice. They put their lives at risk. They have lost their loved ones. We cannot even imagine the gravity of their pain. But what we can do for them is to help raise their voice, is to support them by making their stories known, by sharing their pain and by contributing to their cause. We are here, far away from conflict zones, but it is our duty to stand by our sisters in those areas and help them keep their hope. I strongly believe that human rights cannot exist without humanity.”
Binalakshmi began her activism in researching and mapping the proliferation of weapons used by insurgent groups in the state of Manipur, on the Indo-Myanmar border area, in India’s conflict-ridden North-eastern region. The Indo-Myanmar border area contains over 200 indigenous communities, with diverse cultures, languages and religions, frequently subject to repression by the Indian State. Access to the area is highly restricted. Since martial law was enacted in the area in 1958, armed conflict has been rampant. Over 72 insurgent groups operate in Manipur. There are multiple layers and perpetrators of violence, including insurgent groups, warring communities, the army, police, security and para-military forces, plus criminal gangs: arms-, narco- and people-traffickers.
Binalakshmi saw how women in conflict suffered the most, even when not directly targeted by the violence. In 2004, she established Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI) through which she and her team have documented the sources of the guns fuelling the conflict. She has led work in India on the issues of anti-personnel landmines, cluster bombs and the International Arms Trade Treaty.
In 2007, she launched the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, which to date has helped over 20,000 women. Through this NGO she has created economic opportunities desperately needed by these survivors, invariably living in dire poverty after losing husbands or sons. The NGO provides initial funding for them to start small businesses, e.g. selling produce or home-woven clothing, and ensures they and their families have access to medical treatment, food and education.
The NGO also assists women to seek justice, helping them to file judicial complaints against those they hold responsible for the killing of their loved ones–whether forces of the Indian government or insurgent groups. This activity has drawn the ire of both these parties and it was one of these judicial complaints, that brought threats against her, which led Binalakshmi to flee the country in 2017.
On accepting the award, Binalakshmi Nepram said:
“I thank the organisation, Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) and the distinguished jury for choosing to give us/me this honour, along with the noted writer and journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus, who was also the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner in Literature. I receive this honour wholeheartedly, on behalf of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace.
Manipur is in the Northeast Region of India, home to 45 million people, belonging to 272 indigenous communities and home also to South Asia’s longest-running armed conflict, where over 50,000 lives have been lost, 400,000 people displaced and where – since 1958 – many have been living under martial law, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), sanctioned by the Indian Parliament. For many of us, our world of seven decades of war was something India and its policy makers hid from the rest of the world as an entrenched conflict.
This isn’t fair in the world’s largest democracy and we want the immediate repeal of AFSPA, and an end to the weaponisation, militarization, racial-sexual-environmental violence, trafficking, distortion of our indigenous histories and cultures, population engineering and corporatization of our lives.
Our efforts are humanitarian, in order to deepen democracy and to ensure the rule of law. This award is a recognition that we will not be silenced anymore by what we stand for. I dedicate the Anna Politkovskaya Award 2018 to all women survivors of Manipur, Northeast and the world, to my family and to all whose resilience, strength and belief in our work and courage made us rise, speak up, advocate and take action to bring the change we wish to see in this world.”
Binalakshmi currently lives in exile and does not expect to be able to return to India under the current Indian prime ministership. She says that she has been repeatedly warned by the Indian government not to speak out, and she fears that, if she returned to India, she would meet the same fate as Gauri Lankesh, the Indian journalist and co-winner of the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award, who was assassinated that same year.
The award will be presented to the winners in March 2019 in London at RAW in WAR’s ‘Refusing to be Silenced’ event, part of the 2019 Women of the World (WOW) Festival at the London Southbank Centre.