PAKISTAN: Building a Bridge

Wednesday, September 5, 2012
The Hindu
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

Peace building efforts between India and Pakistan are not for bilateral talks at the diplomatic level alone. People-to-people contact, as they have been saying, is vital. Also vital is a dialogue between youth leaders, what Meenakshi Gopinath of Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) calls, “the future influentials.” So WISCOMP, a Delhi-based initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of the Dalai Lama, recently held in New Delhi a four-day workshop on conflict transformation and peace building between youths from the two countries. Cloistered at the India International Centre Annexe, the initiative, “The Software of Peacebuilding”, Gopinath states, “was a gathering of mid-career practitioners and academics from India and Pakistan for a focused dialogue-cum-training on the diverse ways in which ordinary citizens can contribute to the bilateral peace process and make it truly irreversible.”

The honorary director of WISCOMP highlights that the workshop “also saw the coming together of alumni from the last 11 years to brainstorm on how to take this dialogue forward and strengthen cross-border partnerships for peace.” Here, Gopinath refers to WISCOMP's annual workshops held between Indian and Pakistani youths since 2001 in Delhi. So far, more than 400 such youth have been imparted training.

“Our idea,” she explains, “is to have face-to-face dialogue among youth leaders of entire South Asia along with their professional training in conflict transformation to help build sustainable peace and security in the region.” In an interview here, Gopinath expounds on the idea. Excerpts:

What would you call the achievements of WISCOMP?

WISCOMP was the first initiative in India to foreground women's perspectives in the (then) new and burgeoning field of peace building. It was also the first organisation to work at the intersection of gender, security and conflict transformation in India. In the last 13 years, WISCOMP has had productive engagements with women at the grassroots, in the NGO sector and with women diplomats across South Asia. Importantly, it has given a voice to women who live in situations of violence. We have built a synergy between experience and potential, theoreticians and practitioners, and provided a context where senior and mid-career professionals along with younger entrants to the field have interacted on a range of nonviolent, transformative responses to ethnic, communitarian and political conflicts in South Asia.

The 2011 workshop saw participation of Tibetan, Burmese and Afghan youth living away from their countries. What have these new voices brought to the discourse?

Their participation added a new layer to the complex task of building sustainable peace and security. The displaced have special needs, which must be addressed in trainings and dialogues. Displacement breaks up families and severs community ties. It leads to unemployment, limits access to land, education, food, and shelter. The displaced are particularly vulnerable to violence. However, the vulnerabilities, experiences and aspirations of each community are different. While young Afghans can now return to their country and help in reconstruction and reconciliation efforts, this is not an option open to Tibetan and Burmese youth owing to security concerns. Even though they have better access to education, employment and housing in India, they are under increasing pressure to assimilate, creating conflicts of choice and identity. These new voices have also underscored the need for the next generation of South Asian leaders to be empowered with the skills and motivation to facilitate participatory democracy, pluralism, and active coexistence in the region.

What are the popular ideas at the workshops to fight gender imbalances in South Asia?

Since the workshops address the issue from the viewpoint that gender relations need to be transformed at all levels of society, the young participants are able to connect more easily with the idea of promoting women's political perspectives on peace and conflict issues. However, a dialogue on gender often ends with the realisation that peace begins within the home, leading to introspection on inequities perpetuated in the home and community. For us, the struggle for gender equality is a conflict of two ideologies, one that subscribes to patriarchy, the other which believes in gender relationships based on mutual respect and equity. Several men participate in the workshops signifying that men's inclusion, participation, and support as partners are important components of this struggle.

There is a common acceptance of the need to begin early if we are to transcend these dividers, and more significantly, to prevent violence in their name. So WISCOMP has started an education for peace programme that targets school children and teachers, with a purpose to enabling them to appreciate and even celebrate difference and diversity.