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MIRIAM WENNER

I am a Human Geographer interested in the manifold processes of development and the contestations about space, politics, and identities which these entail. In my research I focus on South Asia, especially on Nepal and northern India.

MY LATEST RESEARCH

Moralities in Movement. Politics, Space, and Ethics in Gorkhaland

EARLIER RESEARCH PROJECTS

Monopolizing a Statehood Movement. Gorkhaland Between Authoritarian Parties and 'Aware' Citizens.

Completed PhD Project, University of Zurich (2010-2015)

Movements for new States in India have been discussed as expressions of a growing decentralisation and democratisation of political power. Contrary to such optimist assumptions this thesis contends that the state preferential treatment of political parties claiming leadership of such movements instead leads to the establishment of competitive authoritarian regimes where incumbents regularly and systematically violate formal democratic rules and rival parties are marginalised.

To underline this argument I draw on the Gorkhaland movement with demands a new Union State to be carved out of Darjeeling district and adjoining areas in northern West Bengal for the largely Nepali-speaking population. A closer look at the agitation reveals its internal fractures and raises doubts about the representative function of its leaders. The Gorkha People’s Liberation Front (GLF) which in 2007 revived the movement under the proclaimed principles of “democracy” and “non-violence” firmly established its dominance in Darjeeling while other regional parties also drawing on the ethno-regional agenda are often violently excluded. This raises the question of why the GLF continues to be the dominant party in Darjeeling even though it subsequently declined on the statehood agenda, and why people aspiring for “justice” and greater participation in politics lend support to a presumably violent and corrupt party.

An understanding of this so-called 'movement' as a 'party-political movement '– as opposed to a people’s movement – allows accounting for struggles over authority and legitimacy amongst the different regional parties. The analysis identifies political leaders’ reputation management, the establishment of resource monopolies and clientelist distribution networks, and repression of opponents as major strategies in the struggle over political authority. These strategies are analysed with respect to the West Bengal State government’s policy towards the contested region. The combination of theories on competitive authoritarianism from comparative politics with anthropological approaches to the study of political authority and legitimacy in South Asia provides an innovate approach to study the inner life of statehood movements beyond the optimistic claims of democratisation and decentralisation.

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Poster of the All India Gorkha League, demanding the "Restoration of Peace, Justice and Democracy" in Darjeeling ahead of the 2011 West Bengal Assembly Elections  © M Wenner

Assessing 'dependency'. Food security and the impact of food aid on livelihoods in Mugu
 
Master thesis, completed at University of Bonn (2010)

The aim of this master thesis was to assess the effects of food assistance -
distributed as Food-for-Work programmes - on recipients. In Nepal (as elsewhere), the general opinion prevails that food assistance in form of rice creates disincentives for domestic food production, changes recipients' food habits, and dissolves their social relationships of mutual help. All this results in
negative dependency, or recipients' inability to meet their own basic needs
without external assistance. Contrary to such perceptions
my research in a remote mountain village of the highly food insecure district
Mugu in North-Western Nepal conducted in June/July 2010 showed that food
assistance was too unreliable and the amounts distributed to little to make
recipients depend on it in the long term. Instead, it helped them preserving
their household assets and increased their feeling of security, especially for
women who generally bear the highest costs of coping during food crises.
Food assistance in this context becomes one more strategy for people to rely
on during times of food crises, adding to the complex webs of dependencies
and interdependencies on which their livelihoods rest.

Recipients of food aid carry rice-bags and construction materials from Talcha airport/Mugu (2009) © M Wenner

Small scale food production in Ethiopia - Review of Policies related to Adaptation to Climate Change
 
Desk study conducted at the German Development Institute (2008)

This study evaluated the Ethiopian Government's policies directed at the adaptation to climate change induced risks in agricultural production, and possible effects on food security.
The major focus of the study was on the Productive Safety Net Programme, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper, and the Climate Change National Adaptation Programme of Action. It evaluated their contributions to enhancing households' adaptive capacity by building an enabling environment to support the reduction of people's vulnerability towards climate-related shocks. The study found that the researched policies contributed to enhancing agricultural productivity, e.g. through irrigation projects, but neglected institutional matters which limit farmers' capacity to adapt flexibly to changes.

Dimensions of Women's Discrimination and Implications for Health and Education in Surkhet/Nepal
 
Undergraduate research project (2006/07)

I conducted this three weeks-long research as part of an internship with the "Dalit Welfare Organisation" in Surkhet, a district in the West Nepal hills which I visited in the aftermath of the 10 years lasting civil war between the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, and the Nepal Government.

The study aimed at identifying the socio-cultural and economic factors leading to women's vulnerability to health related problems and their limited access to education. Based on participatory methods such as picture-drawing, activity charts, seasonal calendar, and Venn-diagrams, and semi-structured interviews conducted with different women in a remote village, the study found that women's problems do not only stem from a lack of access to facilities (such as a health post or proper school buildings due to the remoteness), and their lack of financial capital, or their high work-load due to their husbands' and brothers' migration to India but also from culturally entrenched beliefs about their "impurity". The so called "chaupadi" custom forces women to stay outside their houses during menstruation, or to give birth to their children in sheds, exposing them to multiple risks. The "chaupadi" is a small hut constructed for sheltering women during their menstruation. Usually it stands in some distance to the house. During staying in the chaupadi women are not only exposed to rain and cold but also to snake bites and even rape, and given less nutritious food to eat. Although some women oppose this practice others enforce it resulting in conflicts in the village itself. Concerning education, specifically young girls are prone to be deprived as their workload in the household - including cooking, washing clothes, carrying firewood, grinding flour - is much higher than their male counterparts' and time for reading is less.

Second-grade children drew pictures displaying their perception of typical activities of both females and males in their village. While the women cut grass, bring firewood and carry the children, the men are playing cards © M Wenner