Culture and Conflict

About the project

Working across four countries, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, this research investigates the value of culture to women in conflict settings, seeking to understand gendered economic exclusion and its relationship to peacebuilding, economic agency and empowerment. It uses a cultural mapping methodology to explore how communities of women across different conflict contexts rely on coded and tacit knowledge to rebuild their lives and to understand how cultural practices continue to exist and resist in these challenging contexts.

The project uses culturally relevant, socially significant practices of making as an entry point into discussions about the conflict, its impact, and its legacy. It then transforms these into an action-oriented strategy that pivots practices of making towards economic development and employment focussed narratives linked to concepts of gender equity, employment, agency, and work within the informal sector. Collectively these approaches inform us of the critical link between gendered knowledge, peacebuilding, and economic development through sustainable livelihoods.

For country specific findings and recommendations, please see linked publications below.

Project approach

This project uses a participatory action approach which believes that those most impacted by research should lead in framing questions and determining which actions will be useful in effecting positive change. 103 women are involved in the project, across 8 research sites in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Through photography, colour theory training, pattern making, and various other craft making training sessions, the women expand and develop valuable cultural and economic skills. During the process of working together to produce crafts, the women engage in dialogue about issues of identity from national to micro identities and how intersectionality influences the everyday. They speak about their culture, peace and conflict in their contexts, some spontaneous singing, myth and legend story exchange, and notions of love and romance are part of these dialogues whilst the women work on their textiles. Slightly tougher discussions about community relationships, discrimination and biases faced in the everyday are also documented.

The crafts produced by the women through this project have been shared widely in featured exhibitions and through ongoing sales of their art and crafts in markets across the UK. Thus, the last aspect of the project pivots into commercialising research, which benefits those who designed it.  Sales in New York, London and Oxford have generated over £10,000 of profit which were distributed across the makers.

Identity becomes more refined and more written in stone when a conflict takes place, because it is all you have to hold on to. (Dr Neelam Raina)

Key findings

Informal sector work, and the value of gendered tacit knowledge in contributing to economic empowerment is overlooked.

Women in conflict and fragile contexts, rely on uncoded tacit knowledge to generate solutions for their financial survival. These are often overlooked as tertiary work and their value to peace building and community cohesion is overlooked by policymakers. These are especially useful in nations like Afghanistan, where employment for women is banned, yet the homebased economy is a viable option for sustainable income generation.

Co-designed and co-produced policies and programming for economic development lead to more impactful and long-term engagement.

Cowritten and programmed interventions from women are more inclusive and perceived as more meaningful by women. This project’s work indicates a better uptake, deeper engagement, and cascading of training occurs only when the programme is designed collaboratively and in a bespoke manner that does not use a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Hand painted objects. Jammu, India.

Art based practices as a method are valuable for community level change in highly fragile contexts.

By focusing on personal experiences and shared cultural connections, craft-making can help facilitate challenging conversations about identity, peace, and conflict in accessible, equitable and open-minded ways that encourages collective sharing, listening and learning.

Dyeing dried palm leaves. Mannar, Sri Lanka.

Creative practices face negative gendered biases.

Even in contexts where policy makers focus on women’s economic empowerment, there is still pushback against craft making and art-based practices. These creative industries are often framed as hobbies rather than a source of culture and livelihood. This is a general pattern where any (perceived) non-economic benefit facing labour is relegated as a hobby. The women craft makers are then excluded from engagement with that policy space because they are not seen as artists but as hobbyists.

Training in Srinagar, India

Women rely on women in a feminist practice of making.

Often the women will gather in a house, drink tea, chat and make objects collectively. These are feminist practices where the relationship between the women, the landscape, each other, and the practice of making is the basis of their group community identity.

Loom, Afghanistan.

Intergenerational knowledge is highly valued as women pass on their skills and train others. Women in this research project value the intergenerational knowledge necessary for culturally rooted craft making.

This knowledge, passed particularly along matrilineal lines, is central to both the cultural productions of material goods and the active and affective construction of identities within these conflict-affected contexts.

Dyeing wool. Swat, Pakistan.

Safeguarding principles of care and ethics of research in conflict contexts creates is key to the operating of the project.

Fragility of the context of operation both physically and socio-politically is key in embedding the project with participant buy in. Awareness of local issues including inclement weather, access to public transport and other such nuances of the research site allow for care to be key and ethics of operating to be clearly defined. Seeing researchers as partners and not data collectors is most important.

Garment making. Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Agility of research methodology and partnerships to respond to poly crisis.

Each of the project’s locations face multiple crisis in addition to the global health pandemic of Covid-19. In Pakistan – widespread floods, in Sri Lanka economic and political crisis, in India the abolition of Article 370 removing Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, and in Afghanistan the departure of NATO and the collapse of Kabul to the Taliban. Each event triggering key methodology recalibration and response that did not place additional burden on partners, instead relied on collaborative leadership of research teams in country. Here the principles of equitable research where partners provided leadership in their response is key.

Resilience of culture that is so deeply embedded within the identity and their pride is unshakable. You cannot break it irrespective of the presence of the Taliban, or the Russians or the Americans.

Continued: Key findings

Empathy networks across the regions provide encouragement through solidarity.

Very often the most marginalised lack networks of support, access to information outside of their local/national context and occupy as disconnected isolated space both geographically and conceptually. This work connects women in fragile remote contexts to others across their nation and outside in the wider region. Recognition of challenges which were unique to them, yet present in varying forms in lives of others, provides reassurance, and better engagement across contexts. Peer learning evolves with horizontal linkages between women’s focus groups across South Asia.

Yarns colour ways. Laspur, Pakistan.

Women face challenges such as marginalisation, minoritisation and exclusion through the prevalence of strong patriarchal structures.

Early marriage, limited access to finances, obedience in behaviour and action in accordance with male expectations, and constructs of community ethics and morals amongst other gendered behaviour patterns which influence decision making and related agency are noted. Intersectional micro identities of each individual who is part of this research indicates strong awareness and acceptance of patriarchal norms and expectations. Gendered roles of care and domestic responsibilities are evident in each group. Economic empowerment through livelihoods seems to be the only route that allows women to negotiate their space and decisions within the family setting. Home based economies through informal employment routes, that enable working from home and its safety, are acceptable to the families of the women.

Sheep rearing. Harchin, Pakistan.

Intersectional micro identity indicates home based economy as a preference.

Gender and religion, identity of age, geographic location, dress and culture, language spoken, marital status, reproductive health, all contribute to the understanding of the research and engagement with it. All the project’s focus groups bar one consists of women who are related to each other – old aunts and young nieces, young cousins, relatives from the local area. Women travel for training and related work together, ensuring safety and trust through the physically company of a relative.

Spinning wheel. Swat, Pakistan.

Early career researchers who are community based and engaged within youth groups have a strong desire to break away from micro identities and wish to be seen as change makers. This is a space between practice and research.

This holds true for each partner who is responsible for each aspect of research – inception of the project, selection and identification of case sites, focus group members, building of trust, collection and analysis of data, support for training, cascading of training, leadership for surveys, engagement and support for retail commercialisation logistics, disbursal of funds to makers and reporting. These individuals are key in providing localised insights into the work of the project and its impact on stakeholders and leading on the policy impact and engagement dimension of this research in local settings.

Design Training in Jammu, India.

The value of language in communication inwards inside the project in local languages and the value of language in communicating outwards from the project indicate diversity and also inequality based on colonial structures.

Early career researchers use local languages to communicate. However, this changes to English to indicate progress, outputs, results and the desire to publish. This is a linguistic juxtaposition that places English as a more valued language for communicating knowledge and impact – raising the need to decolonise research.

Weaving carpets. Laspur, Pakistan.

Public interest and support for research commercialisation where communities of women are supported is high.

Feedback from three retail events indicates that over 93% of those who engaged in our public events strongly support research that supports women, and research that produces tangible impact.

Basket weaving. Mannar, Sri Lanka.

Economic Development is seen as a key pathway for peacebuilding by policy makers.

In all four nations, interest on part of the policy makers, during and after training is evidenced. Some of this can now be noted through follow on funding that some of the partners have already received. Afghanistan being the exception as there is no engagement with Afghan policy makers in Kabul. All project trainings, exhibitions and sales have policy engagement with country ambassadors, Ministers and INGOs.

 

Colour and design training. Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.

Local policy makers have shown interest, yet collaborations and knowledge exchange have limited value and possibilities in South Asia, where policy making remains within the pyramid of power structures.

Policy engagement is viewed as the end of research stage activity, distancing research design from policy inputs. This is a traditional way of viewing research and remains the acceptable way of doing so in South Asia. Policy engagement within research method, and design would be of more valuable in many ways.

Afghan traditional dress. Kabul, Afghanistan.

Culture provides an entry point into a conversation that is hard to have when politics is the entry point. People can talk about politics in an affable, open-minded way and have fair arguments around it when you enter through culture and identity.

Recommendations

UN Agencies and those working on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

  • Reframe and broaden what ‘economic empowerment’ is and can look like in the context of WPS. While the WPS agenda acknowledges the importance of economic empowerment, agency and sustainability it fails to adequately emphasise how such work can and often does emerge organically and informally from the bottom up in conflict-affected contexts by the women themselves. Economic livelihood does not just mean formal employment in jobs that require qualifications. It also means the vast and varied informal sector and home-based economies which are often rooted in cultural practices and craft making.
  • Develop a 5th WPS pillar that focuses on women’s economic development and sustainable livelihoods. While historically addressed in the Relief and Recovery pillar of the WPS agenda, further attention and resources are needed to focus on women’s economic development and sustainable livelihoods in ways that are led by women and for women.
  • Policy and programming needs to be locally built and engaged in needs-based approaches which are codesigned. Women’s engagement in programmes designed for economic empowerment should include them in the design and delivery of such funds. Inclusion within such programmes which is long term and sustained is key for deeper and meaningful uptake.
  • Intersectional understanding of gender is key to future success of policy and programming. Each micro identity of location, ethnicity, language, accent, age, colour of skin, dress and body language amongst other such fragments of what makes each person are key to successful policy. Each aspect influences the capacity, capability, access and inequalities that women and other genders experience in the everyday.
  • Patriarchal structures and their absolute control on each aspect of women’s lives must not be underestimated. Micro aggressions, emphasis of power structures and hierarchies, moral standards and expectations of compliance, silence and passive acceptance, diminishing and dismissive behaviours are all part of the spectrum of inequalities women face in South Asia. These should be accounted for and considered when developing any policy and programming.
  • Knowledge hierarchies and colonial hangovers should be carefully considered. Knowledge and resources are carefully guarded, protected and hidden by mainly male actors, this produces hierarchies that underpin inequalities. Any policy that enhances these structural systems of control enhances inequalities for generations of women.

Researchers

  • Explore innovative ways of engaging in research commercialisation projects that tangibly improve the livelihoods of participants while also advancing knowledge and practice. Theoretically constructed projects which provide data and insights value only the lead researcher and their publication-based outputs. Projects that bring material or tangible benefits to partners and participants, which are sustainable designed, and equitably led/ coproduced should be viewed as a key method of conducting research, building decolonial approaches of non-extractive research.

 

 

 

  • Methodology of research needs to be adaptive and accommodating of lived realities and challenges that face population groups. Micro identity based systemic inequalities should be explored within each aspect of research. Methodology which is codesigned with research teams should be adaptive to crisis, which can only be achieved through shared leadership of research methodology. Training of researchers in methods which are relevant can be achieved through collective participatory action-based research.

Culture has brought together communities that had been fractured. Future conversations or dialogue on the future of peace and politics and economics need be embedded within conversations about identity and culture.