Apekshya Prasai receives 2021 Jeanne Guillemin Prize

Growing up in the periphery of the civil war in Nepal, Apekshya Prasai was exposed to a 10-year conflict that by some accounts left 19,000 people dead and 150,000 people internally displaced.

The insurgency was led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (CPN-M) with the aim of overthrowing the ruling monarchy and establishing a people’s republic. The war ended in 2016 under the auspices of the United Nations, and a peace treaty between the Nepalese government and the Maoist rebels.

“We lived in Kathmandu, the capital city, and were fortunate to be sheltered from most of the conflict and direct violence. But we were close enough to be aware of and concerned about what was happening in the countryside,” says Prasai.

Of the many related activities that were difficult for Prasai to make sense of at the time, she was particularly perplexed by the large numbers of women who joined the People’s War.

“Thousands of women were fighters, leaders, and in other kinds of support roles in this violent conflict. And given the deeply patriarchal nature of our society, I have always found this to be astounding.”

As a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, Prasai seeks to better understand this puzzling phenomenon and investigate the dynamics of women’s participation in conflict. Drawing on original data collected through fieldwork in Nepal and secondary data from across South Asia, Prasai’s dissertation analyzes the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in rebel organizations and examines how women themselves influence these processes.

Prasai is the recipient of this year’s Jeanne Guillemin Prize at the MIT Center for International Studies (CIS). Guillemin, a longtime colleague at CIS and senior advisor in the Security Studies Program, endowed the fund shortly before her death in 2019. An authority on biological warfare, Guillemin established the prize to help support female PhD candidates working in the field of security studies, which has long been dominated by men.

Like Guillemin, Prasai is committed to advancing women and other historically excluded groups in academia and has worked in various capacities to further this goal. In the past, she has chaired the Women in International Politics and Security working group at CIS — a network that supports women graduate students, fellows, and faculty in the greater Boston area. Prasai also served as gender and diversity co-chair in the political science department’s Graduate Student Council and was a member of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee.

“The Guillemin prize is especially meaningful to me because Jeanne was not only an esteemed research scientist, but she was also passionate about supporting women. I share her commitment and feel humbled and honored that I could benefit from her generosity,” says Prasai.

From Nepal to MIT

Prasai left Nepal in 2012 for undergraduate studies in the United States at Bowdoin College. It was at Bowdoin that she was first exposed to political science and began noticing how coursework on politics and conflict, rarely, if ever, mentioned women.

“I was taking political science courses and noticed how discussions of wars, both interstate and civil wars, rarely mentioned women. This was odd given what I knew from the conflict in Nepal. So I became curious if women’s participation in violence was something unique to Nepal.”

Curiosity compelled her to explore the issue further. As early as her sophomore year, she delved into learning about women in conflict beyond the Nepal context. And, during a junior year abroad at Oxford University, she began exploring the role of women in resistance movements more broadly. The following summer, she got a grant from Bowdoin to conduct an independent study on women’s participation in violent movements across South Asia. This formed the basis of her undergraduate honors thesis on female suicide bombers.

The thesis left Prasai with more questions than answers and inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at MIT.

“Broadly, my dissertation tries to shed light on the gender dimensions of civil wars. Specifically, I am trying to understand the processes that trigger women’s inclusion in male-dominated, rebel organizations operating in patriarchal communities. I am especially keen on exploring how women themselves influence these processes and aspire to bring otherwise-neglected women’s voices into the discourse on gender and civil wars.”

Prasai feels incredibly fortunate to be a part of the political science department and SSP community.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from exceptionally talented faculty, fellows, and students, who are all doing creative and important research. And I am thankful for having the latitude to pursue research I care about while receiving excellent advising that helps me explore answers to questions that are meaningful to me in a manner that is both rigorous and relevant to the real world.”

For women’s sake

Prasai’s research has involved extensive fieldwork interviewing CPN-M members who participated in the People’s War and collecting primary documents back in Nepal.

She will apply the funds from the Guillemin prize toward additional fieldwork in Nepal. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed her travel plans, she hopes to return by the end of this year. 

“Many of the women I have spoken to have never had an opportunity to put their experiences into words. They are often eager to tell their stories, which, along with their contributions to the movement, they hope will not be forgotten,” she explains. One of her dissertation goals is to try to shed light on these women’s experiences in the People’s War and help conserve some aspects of their history.

“As a Nepali woman, doing work that can help us understand women’s roles in a movement that changed the socio-political trajectory of Nepal and making even a small contribution towards conserving their history, holds great meaning to me and many in my community,” she says. “And I am thankful for support from the Guillemin Prize, which will allow me to continue this work.”