South Asia: Women's peace offensive


‘Give peace a chance’ may just be another cliché for many, but for women who have suffered the ravages of war, endless strife and other forms of conflict, joining hands to find meaningful solutions to their collective aspiration lends it a whole new meaning. "For 5,000 years women have been sitting in ‘jirgas’ (tribal councils), at least in Afghanistan. We have ‘jirgas’ all over Pakistan’s tribal areas also, and we thought why not introduce this concept?"

Within the South Asian region, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have for decades been torn by internal and external conflicts that have cried out for, but have not quite found, a lasting resolution.

"We waited for a long time to see what the men would do for peace," Zahira Khattak, a member the think-tank formed by Pakistan’s Awami National Party (ANP), told IPS.

For Khattak and scores of other women in this region, not only has peace proved elusive, they have also been left out of much of the peace efforts by their respective states.

"Why should this be so?" argued Khattak. 
Aware of the repercussions of remaining silent on a host of issues, including peace and security, that affect them as much as men, women today are increasingly raising their voice in a bid to be heard in the corridors of power and at the policymaking levels.

For months now, women from the three states have been strengthening their alliances, which they hope will be a vital bridge to peace in their region. Khattak said that since so many women in these three countries have similar views on peace, "we thought why not get together and make our voices heard by the people in power?"

"There are many suspicions and mistrust between our three countries," she added, "but sitting together and talking, we find we have so much more in common."

Their first trialogue in April 2009 in New Delhi was an auspicious start of their collective peace efforts. It followed an all-women peace meeting that activists in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s beleaguered North West Frontier Province, convened on Women’s Day, March 8, 2009 – a day they celebrated as ‘Peace Day’, explained Khattak.

Inspired by the results of these meetings, delegates from the three South Asian countries gathered anew early this month for their second peace trialogue. The battered city of Kabul hosted the unusual gathering of women activists, politicians and journalists.

"We are aware we have so many internal problems," said Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra in an interview with IPS. "Our armies are conducting operations against their own people. . . . I’m not saying we’ve resolved all the questions or found their answers, but this (trialogue) is a very good start, and it is very necessary to take it forward."

Ongoing tensions in Afghanistan, worsened by the contentious outcome of its recent elections, are a constant reminder of the need to work together to achieve the elusive dream of a just peace.

"We Afghans are in need of peace," Afghan parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhel told the gathering. "We suffer from insurgency under the banner of religion or liberation war... We lose our lives, our heritage, our honour, our children, our schools…"

Dr Radha Kumar, director of Peace and Conflict Programme of the Delhi Policy Group, which convened the unconventional 'aman jirga' (peace council), summed up the aims of the meeting: to "foster and sustain peace, deal with conflict and post-conflict situations, fight for women’s rights and human rights, ensure women’s greater political participation and make women visible at decision making especially peace negotiation tables."

The meeting stressed the inclusion of women in peace negotiations, particularly given the threats they face from warring groups and the constant need to assert their rights in the face of repressive laws targeted at them. Speaking at the conference, Afghan activist Nargis Nehan noted that "most of the laws and regulations are drafted by (male-dominated) political parties and government."

Gatherings like this provide participants with the opportunity to learn from one another. "Afghan women have been bearing this conflict for 30 years," Pakistani parliamentarian Bushra Gohar of the ANP told IPS. "It is inspiring to hear how they have dealt with it."

Besides sharing experiences, participants focused on trying to find solutions to their common concerns. Their draft plan of action included working towards a Women’s Peace Commission comprising 15 women from the region, setting up a multi-lingual website to facilitate further exchange of ideas and experiences, and holding a follow-up trialogue in Pakistan some time next year.

"Women can be influential if empowered; we represent not just women but also the men in our lives – colleagues, friends, husbands, brothers, sons," said federal minister Aneesa Zeb Tahirkheli of the breakaway Pakistan People’s Party (Sherpao Group).

While women in the three neighbouring states are slowly building alliances towards peace, they still have to constantly fight for their right to be heard and treated as equals in their male-dominated societies.

Tahirkheli and Afghan parliamentarian Shukriya Barakzai were among the hundred or so women who took part in the first Afghanistan-Pakistan peace ‘jirga’ of August 2007 in Kabul, attended by over 600 chieftains, tribal elders and politicians.

It remains to be seen, however, whether such gatherings will continue to include women. The Aug 2007 ‘jirga’ was supposed to be followed up by a ‘jirga gai’ (executive council) with 25 representatives from both states and held in Pakistan. Although it has yet to be convened, several members have been nominated to it – but without women, noted Tahirkheli.

"Women should be included like they were in the main ‘jirga’," Tahirkheli told IPS. "Moreover, it should be a continuous process. Regular meetings will bring contentious issues to the table and help us move forward."

But whether they are included in the planned ‘jirga gai’ or not, the women who trooped to the Kabul trialogue are determined to forge ahead with plans to meet in Peshawar for their third such gathering next year.

Many have stayed in touch with one another, strengthening ties and forging a common bond built on their collective desire for peace. It is also a bond that transcends their differences.

Parliamentarian Nafisa Shah of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party said that women engaged in Pakistan’s Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, which she chairs, "have reconciled with our past and ... made our differences far smaller than our common goals." The caucus brings together women across the party divide.

Such alliances are manifestly no longer confined to Pakistan’s parliament. Within the region, at least among women, broader alliances are taking shape.

The process may not yield any immediate results, but the very fact that it is continuing bodes well for the prospects of genuine and lasting peace in the region.