Women And War: Lessons From The Brutality Of India’s Partition

As India and Pakistan mark the 70th anniversary of partition this year, the violent legacy of the period continues to enflame relations between the two nations. What was then seen as a battle over land caused by religious differences after independence, also became a battle over women’s ‘honour’ – an issue that still plays out in many parts of the world today. The legacy of Partition reveals the centrality of the conflict to the contemporary politics of South Asia. However, even outside South Asia and seven decades after the event, the lessons from partition remain urgently relevant today as conflicts across the world continue to use women as weapons of war.

The deadly aftermath of Britain’s decision to abandon its global empire following World War II prompted many changes around the world. After three hundred years in India, the British decision to carve two new nations along religious lines led to the biggest mass migration in human history. A Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan saw people fleeing their homes after waves of violence were unleashed despite assurances of security on both sides of the border. By 1948, more than fifteen million people had migrated, and between one and two million were dead. The outbreak of sectarian conflict between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims saw countless massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and sexual violence.

The drawing of new borders through towns, farms, and even homes and the brutality that surrounded India’s partition, shattered the dream of secular existence at least during that period. Many women became subject to horrific acts of violence that saw at least seventy-five thousand women raped, and many of them disfigured or dismembered. Historian Urvashi Butalia claims that women suffered most in the process of “choosing one’s nation” when describing the violent treatment of women during the upheaval: “Some 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped, abducted, forcibly impregnated by men of the ‘other’ religion, thousands of families were split apart, homes burnt down and destroyed, villages abandoned. Refugee camps became part of the landscape of most major cities in the north, but, a half century later, there is still no memorial, no memory, no recall, except what is guarded, and now rapidly dying, in families and collective memory.” Women were also encouraged to commit suicide rather than being captured by someone of the “wrong” religion.

As women continue to be brutalised during conflicts across the world in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peru, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia, Somalia and Uganda, gender-based violence remains a repressed issue. UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura demanded that “sexual violence in conflict needs to be treated as the war crime that it is; it can no longer be treated as an unfortunate collateral damage of war”. However, despite growing awareness, the continuation of violence against women in conflict remains an intrinsic issue, with the UN Security Council warning that the Islamic State uses sexual violence as a deliberate tactic in Iraq and Syria. Stories like Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad and her fight along with prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to achieve justice for war crimes and genocide against the Yazidi people continue to provide some hope. However, many victims of sexual violence continue to be overlooked and for many, justice remains just a dream.

Nishtha Sharma


The Organization for World Peace