Braving physical danger and risks on many sides, Nighat Shafi Pandit works with rural communities in violence-scarred Jammu and Kashmir. HELP Foundation, an organization she founded, strives to address the pain and trauma of people caught up in the decades long conflict. Her work focuses on educating orphans, rehabilitating widows, promoting peace and inter-communal harmony, and other endeavors. In 2005, Nighat Shafi was among the three Kashmiris who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her active involvement in orphan’s education, relief and rehabilitation of conflict affected women and the promotion of peace and harmony in the insurgency-hit region of Jammu and Kashmir.
Recently, WRN sat down with Nighat for a conversation about her work with women and children in conflict zones, it’s challenges, and her strategy of holistic, sustainable development aimed at giving women dignified lives.
We would like to know about HELP’s journey – what pushed you towards this endeavor? What challenges have you faced as a woman working with women & children in a conflict zone?
I have witnessed and experienced the conflict in Kashmir very closely. My husband was attacked in the conflict, but this did not make me hold a grudge against anyone. I could see the tragedies of conflict everywhere and felt the need to reach out to those in need. Women bear the brunt of conflict, are tread upon, and exploited otherwise and are never really empowered despite many promises. In Kashmir, the concept of women’s empowerment remains limited and understood as equal to handing them a salary at the end of the month.
HELP’s journey started in 1997. Given the specific needs of the society, we sought to reach out to women through their children. Schools were being burnt down back then and children’s education was declining because of the conflict. This was a sort of terror on the children. So, I started with about 150 children in a little school premises lying abandoned with barely any infrastructure in the backwaters of Dal. In some ways we literally adopted the village.
We started with educating the children. While we were engaging with the children we became closer to their mothers and families, and we learned that the women needed help in more ways than one. They needed grief counselling from losing loved ones, as well as skills training and income generation, which we tried and started.
We also started a mental health clinic. It was a necessity because no one was ready to accept that the conflict had taken a toll on our mental health. Initially we organised medical camps to identify those who needed mental health support for example young widows. That was how it all began.
In terms of challenges, the foremost challenge was that my husband was in government service. This makes our position very precarious in a conflict zone like Kashmir. People had often raised doubts, questioning whether my intentions were to make money in the name of a NGO. Positioning oneself amidst the conflict divide is a difficult path. Nonetheless, I try not to be influenced by political or religious pressures. Our work is very moderate and secular. To date, we have not asked for any government help or funding. We made it very clear from the very beginning that we are a non-government, non-religious organisation. HELP’s work is in Jammu, too, which has a Hindu dominant population. We have made it very clear that anybody who needs or asks for help, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or even the security forces, we would not deny it. We believe in being a human primarily, and our religious and other associated identities are secondary. We strive to perfect the qualities of being a good human first.
In regards to the resources of the organization, it was clarified from the beginning that whatever money we have is from trustees, and our foremost responsibility lies towards the people.
"We have made it very clear that anybody who needs or asks for help, whether they be Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or even the security forces, we would not deny it. We believe in being a human primarily, and our religious and other associated identities are secondary."
How did you negotiate in pushing the set patriarchal boundaries to get the women out and start the wonderful initiative shejar?
As stated earlier, we reached out to the families through their children. In 1998, we started a school in Kupwara with eight children, which introduced us to 8 families. Our work is not limited to just three hours of interaction with the children. We believe in building relations with the families and trying to find some solutions to their problems. This led to trust-building. While it’s not possible to find a solution to everything, we were able to help in some ways.
Active listening was a practice that I followed to establish a ground for mutual trust. In Kashmir, due to the conflict, as everyone has such deep rooted personal experience of it, listening to another sometimes tries one’s patience. But, listening makes a lot of difference. I used to sit with these women, talk to them and discuss their issues. This brought me closer to realizing why the girls were not sent to the school that we had started. Apart from the conventional mind-set that girls don’t need to study, there were also genuine economic constraints. However gradually, as we built more rapport, we visited their homes and offered to pay for the girls’ education.
We then started a training centre for some of the girls who did not want to study– this gave them a sense of confidence that it was possible to move on with life. Through our intimate interaction with the kids in our schools and boarding houses (I have stopped calling it an orphanage), we have access to their homes to see whether their mothers are economically deprived. We help mothers in gaining access to livelihood opportunities through our training centers. Once they see the changes at home, the children can concentrate better in their studies. Concerns regarding food, income or their mother(s) being exploited no longer distract them. We therefore try to strike a balance and develop mutual faith and support. We strive for a holistic approach that addresses not just one element in isolation but the family through healthcare, education and empowerment.
We have children from different areas who have lost their fathers in our boarding house. Here provide formal and arts education to them and go on field trips to other parts of India. This was another boundary that I had pushed. Initially, this was met with a lot of resistance and people were of the view that these kids should not travel outside of Kashmir. However, despite security issues/threats while doing this, I made my way through. I think if you have the dedication and the passion to work, nothing can stop you.
"We strive for a holistic approach that addresses not just one element in isolation but the family through healthcare, education and empowerment."
Once a child has been in your boarding house for some time, do you see a transformative change happening in them? Or In their mothers?
Initially, the ladies used to come and cry mourning the deaths and sorrows. I started getting them together at one place where they poured out their issues to one another. This worked as a therapeutic workshop for them because listening mattered. They also realized that other’s woes were sometimes bigger and each should help out the other. With that we started the centers as well. The centers are not just for producing goods, it’s a kind of therapy. One can make goods even at home, but I insist on them coming to the centre, to sit, talk and listen to each other. This builds a sense of belonging to a particular community and growing in solidarity. Now when we see that a woman is all set to take the journey forward, we help her financially and otherwise to set up her small unit – boutique, tailoring, paper-mache, cotton wool and so on.
We’ve also started an initiative of cooperative credit centers where we help the women get micro-finance loans. We now have about 500-600 ladies who have taken advantage of this and are repaying the loans. This has encouraged them and inspired some confidence to start something without being harassed or having to bribe someone. It also gives her a sense of dignified existence. Simultaneously, we have also tried to help women who are victims of domestic violence, have been divorced, or have issues with relatives regarding property – we have a small legal aid unit that works pro-bono.
"We now have about 500-600 ladies who have taken advantage of this and are repaying the loans. This has encouraged them and inspired some confidence to start something without being harassed or having to bribe someone. It also gives her a sense of dignified existence."
You spoke of using theatre as a tool earlier, have you used the street plays to talk about gender issues in the valley, especially the rise in domestic violence?
We cover any social issue topics. We started engaging the kids in theatre as a therapy to divert their attention from a feeling of revenge that many of them harbored when they first came in. It also provided an opportunity to give shape to the latent talent of these boys. We had the first show in Tagore Hall where, because of security reasons, we were not allowed to hold rehearsals. We could enter the hall and prep ourselves only 30 minutes before the show was to start.
The first show acted as an awakening call for many of those in the audience to see the plight of the children in Kashmir. It has been a conscious choice to not invite any important persons to these events, and usually whoever attends these shows comes for the love of children.
Now we have the theaters as a regular feature and have regular trainers as well, sometimes even from the National School of Drama. Mostly, we delve into social issues – it can be environment, violence against women including domestic violence, bride burning, and stoning. We also address mental health and drug use.
You spoke of using theatre classes to take the kids outside Kashmir, was it done consciously to forge bonds across the conflict divide?
Yes. In 2000, I took all the children in the boarding house to Delhi. Back then, theatre was banned in Kashmir and taking these children outside was considered a taboo, but I took my chance in spite of the security risks. I feel that we die only once. If it’s destined to be, it will be. Fear of dying shouldn’t stop me from doing my work.
So we took the children by road. They met many people on the way who made them feel loved. I wanted them to know that everybody is not bad. We have the security forces, they aren’t all be bad contrary to popular belief in Kashmir. And there’s the other side, the militants, and despite what the government says even they can’t be all bad.Most of those men have been mobilized and militarized because of a situation created by those in power. Many of them did not freely chose to pick up a gun.
I wanted the kids to see that they have friends outside of Kashmir as well. They went to Jammu, stayed there for a while, and then they went to Delhi. In Delhi, I fixed up a meeting with the Vice President of India. They were well-received and extremely happy. There was a press conference with these little kids and when asked what they aspire to be when they grow up one of them said he wanted to be the Prime Minister of India. Even now we have children who went on to study outside of Kashmir. Through our work and engagement with the kids we tell them whatever has happened has happened, but it is necessary to move beyond these grievances and create a new life for oneself.
Do you think that class becomes an important factor in conflict zones when it comes to women – how they experience the conflict, how they are affected by it, or in the way they negotiate the socio-politics of conflict?
The upper middle class is much protected; it is the lower middle class and the poor people who have taken the brunt of the conflict. They are more resilient in nature. By virtue of my social position, even when I know that there are security risks, I have the feeling that if something was to befall upon me I’ll be saved somehow. But it is the women who are not so protected and rarely have any option of sending their children outside Kashmir, who have faced the consequences of conflict bravely in their everyday struggles. It is the women in the villages who work in the fields, face physical insecurity everyday and actually bear the brunt of the conflict. They are the ones who deserve credit. That they continue to live on in the valley despite such hurdles and look for ways to solve their problems shows how valiantly they have dealt with the situation.
HELP has focussed on very significant practical gender needs of women affected by conflict like education, health, and income generation. Do you think there’s a possibility to take this forward towards a strategic feminist peace-building discourse?
I think the way things are being pushed and the way women are being harassed, there will come a time when we (women) will have to put our foot down and say enough is enough. Now the humiliation of what is happening is pushing us to the threshold.
However, a major drawback here in Kashmir is that women are not in politics. It is necessary to have women leaders who are not cut-off from the reality and are leaders of the masses. That way there would be some hope that the issues which are pertinent to the women will be attended to. In that case, it would be ideal to have women across all sectors - from grassroots level, educated women, civil society, and so on to come forward and take up the reigns of the government. However, as desirable as that is, the reality is that in Kashmir we have a problematic political life. Elections are not always free and far. There exists a big question on which party to join and the stance of the party itself –whether it is anti-India, pro-India, anti-Pakistan, pro-Kashmi. This dilemma has been a major impediment that keeps women away from politics.
"I think the way things are being pushed and the way women are being harassed, there will come a time when we (women) will have to put our foot down and say enough is enough. Now the humiliation of what is happening is pushing us to the threshold."
In July this year, we saw headlines where female college students were pelted with stones. It was a landmark moment. Is there a way to consolidate this agency to invoke rights and demand for peace and justice on more issues than sexual violence? To say that there is more to the way conflict affects women that kunan-poshpora or shopian?
I think woman just have to start off somewhere. Even if it seems difficult, one should not lose hope. At the present, all women are aghast at what is happening (with all the braid chopping incidents, creating a sense of mass hysteria and gendered insecurity), so maybe there’s a possibility of such a movement a few years down the line.
It is evident that women suffer these crimes disproportionately. In Kashmir, it is considered an achievement just to make it to court. But, rehabilitation doesn’t have anything to do with a court case. To overcome, these women need to be given a dignified life with their own income. They cannot remain dependent on doles from the government and NGOS. They need economic empowerment. However, in most cases that has not been happening.
Given your vast experience on promoting love and peace, how would you describe the phrase – Women, Peace and Security – in relation to Kashmir?
There is no peace to talk of in this part of the world. No woman feels secure here. It is very difficult to live in a conflict zone, especially when there are so many actors and characters in it. Nonetheless, we strive to find peace in ourselves and the society through our work and try to reach out to as many women, and children, as possible.
I believe if all of us as individuals, whatever our situation is, strive to reach enough people, maybe there will be some bit of peace and security. I tell the young people to look around you and see what can be their contribution. It is in fact the onus of every Kashmiri to take some responsibility in dealing with the situation in a constructive manner.
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