I recently returned from Nepal, where I facilitated the second annual CONTACT (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures)
South Asia program for peacebuilders from throughout the region. South Asians are bound together by geography, history, religion, language, and ecology—but they are also separated by war, mistrust, and many of the same issues of history and religion that bind them. Our participants and faculty together spoke 38 languages, some almost extinct—and yet were connected by the common language of Hindi, which they learn from Bollywood movies and television.
This year’s CONTACT South Asia program brought together 44 participants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal and ran from December 7-17, 2010. We were fortunate to have four very active and articulate women from Afghanistan selected by the US Embassy in Kabul, as well as four Afghan men who were sponsored by non-governmental organizations. The diversity of the CONTACT participants created rich opportunities for relationship-building across the divides of nations, cultures, customs, religions, and perspectives in the region.
Most of the participants work in non-governmental organizations in their countries, although some serve in governments, academia, education, media, and law. They attend a core course in theory and practices of peace and conflict for the first week of CONTACT, and choose between two electives in the second week: Peacebuilding and Development, or Negotiation and Mediation. We provide the participants with hands-on training in skills and tools to prevent inter-communal conflicts from escalating into problems that threaten regional, national, or even global security.
CONTACT, which I founded in 1997, is a program of the School for International Training Graduate Institute
. Many of the participants in this year’s South Asia program were sponsored by US State Department funds through regional US Embassies, while others were sponsored by their organizations or given partial scholarships through the CONTACT Program.
Paula Green facilitates a "fishbowl" exercise to delve into difficult issues; a small group of participants discusses a question in the center of the room, with everyone else ringed around them as observers. (right)
The people who participated in this year’s CONTACT South Asia program will remain linked through a newsletter they co-create and disseminate online, and by developing regional peacebuilding activities. They also are linked to previous CONTACT participants from the region, which builds up a cohort of peacebuilders who can engage together in joint activities.
Participants in this year’s program are already in touch with each other online, following up on the spark we created in Nepal—exchanging greetings and ideas, and spreading messages of inter-communal tolerance in this region of deep-rooted and tragic conflict.
In September 2007 Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and the Initiative for Inclusive Security jointly led a six-day multi-sector training seminar in Kabul, titled Securing Afghanistan: Women’s Vital Contributions. The training culminated in a policy forum held at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought together more than 60 Afghan leaders and 17 international policy makers.
The overall security situation in Afghanistan is, unfortunately, backsliding. A renewed Taliban insurgency and emboldened conservative forces threaten a still fragile peace and, most especially, the status of women. Women government officials, civil society leaders, and journalists have been subject to verbal and physical harassment and sometimes violence. In June, two prominent women journalists, Zakia Zaki and Shakiba Shaba, were murdered in front of their homes. At all levels of government, women are becoming increasingly marginalized in the political process, a situation that endangers hard won gains. To achieve successful stabilization and democratization, Afghans must recognize women’s empowerment as central to the country’s political, economic, and social reconstruction. Afghan women must also be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to advocate for their rights and ensure their participation at all levels of society.
Karuna Center’s partner, the Initiative for Inclusive Security, has worked in Afghanistan since 2005, providing training for women in government ministries and parliament. In this recent seminar women and men from civil society organizations, parliament, and the ministries worked together on strategies for building multi-sector coalitions that promote women’s participation in addressing the obstacles to sustainable peace. The program was organized by the Afghan Women’s Network, a prominent umbrella organization of over 90 Afghan NGOs.
Participants came from a variety of backgrounds. Female participants included members of parliament, Afghanistan’s only female general, a judge, foreign ministry staff, business leaders, educators, and NGO leaders, including an extraordinary young woman who founded secret schools for girls during the Taliban era and more recently, a safe house for victims of domestic violence. Male attendees came from ministries and NGOs and fully participated in developing strategies to promote women’s inclusion.
Karuna Center’s contribution emphasized multi-sector coalition building to advance women’s involvement at all levels of social and political reconstruction. Outspoken Afghan women are often fighting lonely battles as they struggle to be heard. To be effective they need broader platforms where they can develop mutual support. Conflict analysis and mapping exercises equipped participants with tools to deepen their understanding of the root causes of a range of current conflicts and to develop more effective strategies for intervention. In analyzing the “pillars” that maintain the ongoing oppression of women, participants reflected on the problems of illiteracy, poverty, lack of awareness of legal rights, inadequate enforcement of laws, inaccurate interpretation of Islamic values, traditions of male dominance, women’s lack of confidence, and fear of reprisals. Mixed groups of women and men then worked to develop strategies for addressing each of these impediments through the work of their respective sectors. Other sessions focused on practical skills of conflict resolution and on means for bridging ethnic, religious, and regional divides to construct a national civic identity.
Building on this foundation, the second part of the seminar led by the Initiative for Inclusive Security addressed the current security situation in Afghanistan. There were informational presentations from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and other internationals assisting the Afghan military and police with training and reform. Capacity-building sessions in advocacy and message management then prepared the participants to present strategic recommendations to relevant NATO, EU, and US policy makers during roundtable discussions held on the final day.
Peaceful democratization in Afghanistan is being sorely tested on numerous fronts. All agreed that much more substantive dialogue is needed between the international groups offering assistance and the Afghan governmental and civil society institutions working to rebuild their country. Women’s voices are clearly crucial to these exchanges. A dynamic partnership between Karuna Center and the Initiative for Inclusive Security resulted in a seminar that offered Afghan participants a broadened understanding of security, one that goes beyond issues of immediate safety. Ultimately, true security depends upon the full inclusion of all citizens, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or class and also requires strategies that address the causes of conflicts at their deepest roots.