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May 30, 2003

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"Empowerment for peace peace for empwerment"

Aasha Mehreen Amin and Lavina Ambreen Ahmed

The greatest failure of the modern man has been to be unable to prevent or give up the senseless killing and destruction that we call war. Man here is the operative word, for it is men, who star wars and it is the women who pick up the pieces, nurture the sick and heal the wounded. Perhaps such statements are generalisations unfair to all those men who oppose war and violence but it is undeniable that all throughout history the initiators of war have been men. Women, on the other hand, have always wanted peace, for it is the women who suffer the most during war.

On May 14, 2003, thirty four women from various walks of life, boarded a 'Bus of Peace' from Kolkata to Dhaka. They were members of the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA) an organisation who had already completed another important journey -- from Delhi to Lahore in 2000, after the Kargil war.
The peace-activists included human rights activists, journalists, artists, filmmakers, writers, academics, students and women rights activists. Even a former member of Parliament and a former judge were among this energetic, motivated group. While many will have branded this as another one of those women's events characterised by a lot of talk and little action, the very theme of this journey, an initiative for peace, gave an indication of the uniqueness and sincerity of this enormous endeavour. In the wake of the recent Iraq war the continuous conflict in Kashmir and Palestine and the communal violence in Gujrat, the journey was perfectly timed. It was to remind the world of its own madness in the game of self-destruction. It was a call to the biggest proponents of peace women--to join hands in the movement to end war.
WIPSA's press statement says that the mission of these journeys is 'to establish that women have the highest stakes in peace and the time has come for the women of South Asia to lead their respective governments and societies towards not only a conflict-free region, but a haven of peace'. But the underlying message of this long journey was that women have to come together to fight the injustice, violence and oppression of their lot since if there is no peace at home there can never be peace outside.

Kamla Bhasin, a well-known gender expert in South Asia has conducted many workshops in Bangladesh.

The peace delegation from India included some prominent personalities. A number of them were Bangalis with roots in Bangladesh. The visit was therefore an emotional homecoming for some. For others it was an enlightening experience to talk to women across the border and find that the problems women face are virtually the same. Still others were moved and inspired by the honesty of village women and the courage of some, who no longer looked down when they walked but with their heads up fearlessly facing the world. On their side, the Indian women brought with them songs of emancipation, poetry of women's struggle and new and refreshing insight into gender issues. SWM managed to talk to some of these remarkable women.
Kamla Bhasin, a social scientist and well--known gender expert who has come to Bangladesh innumerable times since 1976, spoke about the domination of patriarchal systems and chauvinistic mindsets that threaten peace in the world. Even the creation of knowledge, says Bhasin, has been monopolised by men for the last 3,000 years. “Men have control of both pen and sword. The revolution is the coming of thousands of women in the creation of knowledge in the fields of Sociology, Politics, Psychology etc. Women are now questioning the male way of thinking.”
Bhasin points out that there is a need to start analysing the relationship between economic globalism and increasing fundamentalism, between militarianism, fundamentalism and masculinity. Bhasin has an interesting definition of masculinity. Masculinity, she says, is "Bushful thinking". Masculinity is not biological but comes with power. She relates the story of Gautam Buddha who, as a child, had come across a bird wounded by an arrow. Gautam wanted to nurse the bird back to life but his cousin who had shot the bird claimed it as his own as it was he who had brought it down. Then Gautam pointed out that since he (his cousin) had wanted to hurt the bird and kill it, the bird could never belong to its assailant. It is this blind arrogance to want to own and control through force that Bhasin describes as masculinity. WIPSA's intention, says Bhasin is to strengthen the voices of peace and justice. In real terms, the specific agenda of the organisation include the issue of nuclear threat in South Asia, the marginalisation of SAARC, the reduction of poverty and violence against women. Bhasin also states that the increasing fundamentalism on both sides of the border threatening minorities and ultimately peace in the region, is also an important issue for WIPSA. Other 'ticklish' concerns pertinent to Bangladesh and India says Bhasin, must also be addressed such as trade issues, the border crisis, trafficking of women and the water debate. “We cannot leave it to politicians or people who believe in war. I believe that the majority is for peace but if the peaceful majority is silent then the violent minority will take over.”

WIPSA delegates responding to queries at the Press Conference at the end of their Dhaka trip.

Dr. Sayeda Hameed, the Founder Trustee of WIPSA is a former Judge of the Delhi High Court. She thinks that women have a great stake in peace and women's intervention in the peace process is essential in today's world. “Especially in South Asia where there are innumerable issues affecting the lives of billion plus people. Whereas, precious few resources that we have are squandered by the Government in the pursuit of conflict,” she voices her concern. Hameed, who is also a former member of the National Commission for women, firmly believes women want to pursue peace because they have had enough of the meaningless violence that kills innocent lives. “We didn't get any government sanctions or sponsorships for our peace movement”, she continues. Most participants made use of personal funds to come to Dhaka. But she insists that the delegates didn't hesitate to finance their own trip. “The cause was worth it.” She was touched by the hospitality and generosity of Bangladeshi people. “Wherever we went, we were given a warm welcome and our host families made us feel totally at home.” Yet, this former judge turned social activist has one disappointment. “We wanted to meet with Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, but she couldn't give us time. In Pakistan, one of the major achievements was our meeting with General Parvez Musharraf who listened to our concerns.”

Dr. Sayeda Hameed, the Founder Trustee of WIPSA is a

The trip had a special significance for Bharati Roy from Kolkata. Bharati Roy is a former pro-Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and a former MP of Rajyashabha for two consecutive terms. “My ancestors are from Bangladesh, so I have always felt a bond with the Bangladeshis living on the other side of the border.” Founder-Director and founder member of Calcutta University's Department of Women's Studies and Peace Studies Research Centre respectively, Bharati Roy has taken up the role of a peace activist only recently. “I am a teacher by both training and experience and don't know much about development work,” she says, “but I was very impressed by the NGO efforts in Bangladesh”. In Roy's opinion, the village women are quite strong and aware of their rights. “I found the activities of the organisation “Nijera Kori very interesting. In fact, it was a revelation for me to see how advanced most of the development organisations are in Bangladesh.”

Bharati Roy is a former Pro-Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University and a former MP.

Another Founder-trustee of WIPSA, Mohini Giri explains that even though Bangladesh and India have always been good friends, in the recent years, the two countries have had to confront a number of contentious issues such as, 'push in/push back' crisis, water sharing, trafficking and trade relations. “Governments have their own reasons for taking or not taking actions in resolving these problems,” states the former Chairperson of National Commission for Women. The depressing scenario in the South Asian region prompted human rights activists in India to set up a strong and effective forum for women, to enable them to express the major problems of the region that affect their lives. “Whatever said and done, women can make a difference,” she points out. “We have visited many places and have addressed critical issues. The participants and the audience will take whatever they have discussed at the seminars and meetings to their homes and offices and spread the message of peace among family members, friends and colleagues. That is how WIPSA intends to build a bridge of cooperation and solidarity among South Asian women. Mohini Giri was also the Chairperson of Delhi State Social welfare Advisory Board and the Founder President of War Widows Association.
Yashodhara Bagchi, a social activist and Chairperson of State Women's Commission, says that the people to people interaction that WIPSA has initiated through its peace journeys must continue to build bridges between people. “South Asia is our target because we share common history and culture. Our mission is to address different sections of people.” Bagchi, who is former Head of the Department of Women Studies, believes that personal intervention is effective in resolving differences. She also reiterates the importance of harmony within the family as violence spreads from the family to the outside world. Bagchi hopes that WIPSA's efforts will help to steer people away from a state of ambivalence and move into a commitment to peace. “It is also very important that we speak out against the hegemony of a single power”.

Mohini Giri is a founder trustee of WIPSA and former Chairperson of the National Commission for Women in India.

Mallika Sengupta, a Bangali poet who writes primarily on women's issues and is a Lecturer of Kolkata College feels that it is important for the people of India and Bangladesh to renew their ties of friendship. “It's not that our countries are in conflict, but in the face of the growing tensions world wide and under the pressure of global warfare and commercialism it is important for South Asia to be strong and united.” Sengupta alludes to WIPSA's mission as a natural instinct of women that has been carried out since ancient times. “From the beginning of time, women have always been against war and men have been for war. Women have always taken the initiative to bring peace, is part of that. We are here to express our solidarity with other women in our fight against war”, says Sumita Ghosh who works for the Hunger Project working in rural communities in India, mainly in the area of women's empowerment, says that one of the issues WIPSA continues to address is trafficking of women and children which is happening on both sides of the border. “We are trying to see what we can do to raise awareness about this issue at the grassroots level as well as bring changes in the legal and policy level.” WIPSA's achievement says Ghosh, is to be able to form better understanding between people through the interactions it initiates. “It is the lack of interaction that creates doubts and animosity. Through these interactions a lot of doubts can be dispelled and people can see that in the end we have the same hopes and aspirations.” At the meeting with Doorbar organised by Naripokkho members and, the delegates discussed the issue of communalism in both countries. “Communal violence is often triggered by economic reasons, to grab property.

Mallika Sengupta, a poet from Kolkata, writes primarily on women's issues.

Communalism also sexually targets women. There is therefore the need for women to be strong and united, to take up leadership roles to ensure their own security.” Ghosh adds that the main goal of WIPSA is “to formulate a strong, consolidated South Asian forum of women for peace.”
Hawa Bashir, a music teacher came all the way from conflict--torn Kashmir to talk of peace. There, the issue of peace could not be more personal. “We have been suffering for the last 15 years. I can understand how valuable peace is,” she says. She insists that women can make a difference in the movement against war. “I have heard that during Bangladesh's struggle for freedom, women were very much involved. Even now they are very active.”Women, says Bashir, are the backbone of every household. “They are also healers. So if the whole world is wounded it is the duty of all women to heal it.”
Neepabithi Ghosh, a young singer, joined the women's peace mission at the invitation of an NGO in Calcutta named Swayam. “It was an enlightening experience for me, “ says Neepabithi. “We've visited many organisations and met with women from both the privileged and marginalised groups.”For her, it was an eye opener, to find out about development activities and their immense contribution in changing lives. This was the first time Neepabithi took part in WIPSA's activities. "Every small effort for peace counts to make changes for peaceful co-existence.”

Hawa Bashir came from conflict--torn Kashmir to talk about peace.

From the Bangladesh side, the hosts were satisfied with the outcome of the trip. “It was a rekindling of the spirit of the initiative for peace,” says advocate Sultana Kamal who works for Ain O Salish Kendra. “We are defining peace as not just the absence of war but peace also in private life, in society.” Kamal adds that the event was a success in the sense that the women (both the delegates and the hosts) were able to tell their leaders that people do not endorse the wars that they initiate. “We are gathering strength and courage to talk to the policy makers in the line of hope that so many people are with us.” Kamal also points out that this was not a meeting of women activists of India and women activists of Bangladesh. Rather, there was a meaningful interaction between the delegates and women at the grassroots level. “They met with women who have been caught in the cross border conflict, women who have been subject to various kinds of violence. But Kamal feels that the most important achievement is that people have said, 'peace is our right'.
Khushi Kabir, the coordinator of Nijera Kori is another host who was very positive about the outcome of the WIPSA trip. In February of this year, Sayeda Hameed got in touch with Sigma Huda, Hameeda Husain, Sultana Kamal, Khushi Kabir and some others in Dhaka and told them about their interest to come to Bangladesh on a peace mission. “We contacted women rights groups and NGOs and conveyed WIPSA's intention to them,” she elaborates.

Yashodhara Bagchi, a social activist and former Head of the Department of Women's Studies at Jadavpur University.

“The response we got from all the organsations was simply amazing." Every single organisation responded enthusiastically and got involved in planning the programmes for the WIPSA delegation. The itinerary was made and the Indian peace activists were taken to visit not only the activities and diversified programmes of the host organisations, they also had the opportunity of meeting with a few Bangladeshi Ministers to talk about bilateral issues. “Their schedule was packed but we took them to a few places not mentioned on the list, like Smriti Shoudho and Muktijuddho Jadughar,” says Kabir.
Inspired by WIPSA's objectives, Bangladeshi counterparts are planning to make a similar road trip from Dhaka to Kolkata by bus. “We are thinking about going to India this October or November,” reveals Kabir. “We intend to spend two to three days in Kolkata then travel to Delhi by train” According to Kabir, the Indian delegation's visit was very successful in the sense that it proved, if women in the South Asian region are united, they can pressurise the governments to stop destructive political power games.
At the end of five days of intense interaction, WIPSA gave a statement at a press conference. The points made are as follows.

Bharati Roy at a meeting with Nijera Kori members in Tangail.

l WIPSA is against violence, which is perpetrated as a means of resolving disputes in the family, the community and between countries.
l It is opposed to war in the region or any part of the world. WIPSA condemns the indiscriminate bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the continuous aggression in Palestine. The members of WIPSA want a nuclear free South Asia and a nuclear free world for the present and future generations.
l Wars are perpetrated in the name of the security of the people; as citizens of South Asian countries, WIPSA wants to say no to wars.
l They believe that movement of people across the borders, especially in South Asia needs to be addressed with human understanding of economic and livelihood compulsions.
l WIPSA is also opposed to all forms of fundamentalism because they tend to destroy freedom of thought and choice and inculcate fear and hatred in society.
l South Asia's rich tradition of pluralism and tolerance is being destroyed by the communalism in politics, it inculcates hatred for the 'other', it has also marginalised and discriminated against minorities and perpetrated violence particularly against women.

The trips to Pakistan and Bangladesh are just the beginning. The plan is to continue similar journeys between all the countries of South Asia to gain support for peaceful resolution of the critical problems in the region. Quoting the declaration of WIPSA drafted at the end of the Bangladesh visit, Dr. Syeda Hameed said, “Our roots will be strengthened by the friendships we have formed and the common understanding which has evolved during these few days in our journey for peace.”

The Journey from Delhi to Lahore

When the Kargil war was going on, many women in India and Pakistan were very worried. The impact of the blatant aggression and the immense sufferings on both sides was unnerving. On August 10, 1999, a cross section of Indian women met in Delhi on a one-day conference titled, “Women's Vision: A Culture of Peace”. The conference focused on women's initiatives in peace and identified the key issues that needed to be addressed. The idea of a bus trip to Pakistan was originated at this conference.
On March 25, 2000, thirty six Indian women boarded the Pakistan tourism bus from Delhi and reached Lahore, Pakistan on the same day. Five more women flew in from Delhi, bringing the total strength of the group to 41. As in the visit to Bangladesh, all the Indian delegates had paid for their own travel, but accommodation and other arrangements were extended by the Pakistani women's organisations. The Indian delegation had gone to Islamabad to meet the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. A sub group of seven members was taken to Rawalpindi to meet the Chief Executive of the country, General Parvez Musharraf. The delegates had a free discussion about the Kashmir issue with General Musharraf. They also had a meaningful roundtable interaction with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Lahore. Another significant part of the trip was the conference organised by the 'Indo-Pakistan Women's Solidarity Conference on the theme “Women's View of the Sub-Continent.” In Pakistan, the response to WIPSA was overwhelming, so much so, that within a month of the Indian team's visit, 64 delegates from Pakistan went to Delhi from Lahore by bus.

The Highlights of the Dhaka visit

When the Peace Bus entered Bangladesh, the WIPSA members were received at the Benapole border by members of Banchte Shekha, Bangladesh National Women's Lawyers Association and Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights. In Dhaka at Kamlapur Station, they were received by a large number of host organisations and members of the press. The most remarkable aspect of the delegation was that each of these women came at their own expenses and each of them had been invited to stay by women from Bangladesh who opened up their homes to the visitors. A tight schedule was chalked out for the Indian delegates. This included interacting with grass roots women members of Doorbar, a network of 450 organisations from 64 districts. They also met with other NGO's such as Gono Shashthya Kendra, Nijera Kori, BRAC, Proshika, Hunger Project and Research initiatives Bangladesh (RIB). The members of WIPSA also met with government ministers, officials and members of political parties including the Awami League.
There were also many other activities centring around this event. An art exhibition titled 'Peace Song' of 28 women artists of Bangladesh was arranged at the Bengal gallery. Sammilito Nari Samaj arranged a photographic exhibition portraying women's struggle since the language movement in 1952. WIPSA members also met trade unionists and women workers courtesy of 'Kormojibi Nari'.
Cultural functions were arranged at the Mahila Samiti and a discussion meeting with Dhaka University faculty and students was hosted jointly by the Departments of Peace and Conflict and Women's Studies. Programmes were also arranged for them by Mohila Porishod, BNWLA, Nari Grontho Probortona, Sangat and Nari Pokkho. At the end of their stay, WIPSA members held a press conference arranged by Bangladesh women Journalists Association. The WIPSA delegation was in Dhaka from May 15 to 20.


The Dhaka University Business Faculty came alive on May 18, 2003 with the voices -- both musical and forceful -- of the WIPSA Friends.
A dialogue was arranged by the Department of Women's Studies and the Department of Peace and Conflict to enable students and teachers of different departments of the university to interact with the 34-member team from India.
Professor Bharati Ray, Mohini Giri and Kamla Bhasin were only those accompanying the DU VC and the Chairs of the organising departments on stage. Putting their message of peace to music and poetry and answering a host of questions posed by both students and teachers were members of the group from various parts of India, from various professions, each a champion of peace in their country.
What role does civil society have to play in world peace? What influence does religion have on the Indo-Pak conflict? Why weren't India's ethnic communities represented in the team visiting Bangladesh? What is the situation of women in Jammu and Kashmir and how do they suffer? In both Bangla and English, the Indian delegates and the Bangladeshi hosts attempted to answer the questions posed. Unable to go into a lot of history and background for lack of time, they put up an optimistic picture of a world which can find peace, where civil society, the common people, can play the major role to bring it about. Governments make war, claimed the women; it is the people who can protest it, prevent it, strive for a better world.
For students who had only heard of the likes of Kamla Bhasin in sociology and women's studies classes and even teachers who had only read her works, it was a privilege to actually see her upfront and hear what she had to say. The WIPSA friends themselves also considered it an honour to be on the grounds of Dhaka University, an institution with such great history and tradition, not to mention academic excellence. The atmosphere of intellectualism, combined with openness to learn and understand, showed that the dialogue was effective in getting the message through from the givers to the seekers and back, leaving both sides with a better understanding of the different peoples and perspectives involved, opening up new dimensions for thinking and questioning and for bringing and maintaining peace in the South Asian region.


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