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A safe space for women in Kashmir


Last year saw renewed trouble in Kashmir, as protests broke out. Yet amidst the violence and disruption, local organisation Athwaas steadfastly continued their critical peacebuilding work.

  • Published

    13 June 2011
  • Written by

    Peace Direct

Last year saw renewed trouble in Kashmir, as protests broke out. Yet amidst the violence and disruption, local organisation Athwaas steadfastly continued their critical peacebuilding work.

In June 2010 a full curfew was enforced and there were reports of the army opening fire on street crowds. For five months street riots, arson and destruction dominated the valley. Over 100 people lost their lives, the majority of them young people. The work that Athwaas has been doing has never been more relevant.

The Samnabals – a safe space for women

Women have felt the brunt of the violence in Kashmir – Athwaas was set up to move these women from victims to change makers who can bring peace to their communities. In the migrant camps and impoverished areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Athwaas has given women safe spaces – a place to meet, to talk and be free to discuss any issues. These spaces, called ‘samanbals’, have grown to meet the needs of the women, and given them the skills to take collective action for their communities.

Women in action

In the camps of Jammu whole families live cramped in one room, and tensions can easily rise. Domestic violence happens with frightening regularity. The women of the samanbal have taken collective action to try to stop this abuse. Their method is simple, yet effective. When a woman is in danger of physical attack, the samanbal women will walk to her house and collectively knock on the door. The visit is friendly, but their action states that violence against women is not acceptable, and often they find that this simple act diffuses the situation and prevents the assault.

All of the samanbals have combined teaching practical skills with developing an understanding of the wider conflict, and dispelling myths and stereotypes about the other communities.

These are just some of their achievements:

  • In Bijebehara the women chose to raise awareness of government health schemes that provide life saving services. These schemes included ‘polio drops for children’, blood banks and support to widows. The samanbal has reached out to over 200 women.
  • The Zoohama samanbal trained 30 women to be ‘bare foot counselors’ – to go door to door to other women in their community offering trauma counselling and basic health care.
  • In Leh, Purrkho and Kraalpora the samanbals have concentrated on bringing women together through economic activity. The women have learnt skills such as knitting and embroidery to make goods to sell at market. These safe places have transformed once shy women into competent leaders and entrepreneurs.

The next step

The samanbals are now largely self run and Attwaas is concentrating on increasing their influence. Through the samanbals they have created a grassroots network of peace and reconciliation – their task now is to build a culture of peace throughout wider society. To do this they have brought together religious leaders, academics, writers, business leaders and the media. Together they are creating an action plan, for how communities can come together to rebuild their lives. They want to spread peace education, to use music and arts to rekindle culture heritage and to identify the steps that civil society can commit to. One such step is to collect oral testimonies – to show all sides of the conflict and to move away from the idea of victim and perpetrator. They are working with writers to turn these testimonies into stories for children – so that they do not grow up carrying the legacy of the conflict.

As we saw in the unrest of last year, there is a great need to change the perception that violence is ever a legitimate political tool. Athwaas is uniquely placed to bring together people with influence, to challenge myths and prejudices that continue to divide society.

It is because of individuals making a monthly gift that Athwaas has been able to provide this life changing support to women who have lived through decades of violence. Make a gift today and you can help women in Kashmir build a new future without violence.


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