It has been a diffcult summer for Ashima with demonstrations and curfews across the Kashmir Valley. Since June 11 Indian police and paramilitary forces have been accused of killing 15 civilians – four of them women. The curfew has brought the valley to a standstill, and for Ashima this means not only heightened insecurity but also that she is unable to push ahead with plans to expand the samanbals.
However as Ashima talks about the Samanbals and particularly about some of the individual women, her passion and belief that women can and will be the change-makers in the peacebuilding process comes across stronger than ever.
It has been eight years since Ashima established the first Samanbal in the Kashmir valley. There is now one in each division of Kashmir, and the women come daily. Each samanbal provides the women with a space they can call their own, where they can learn income-generating activities to provide for their children, gain respect from their families and which together builds the political conscience of the women.
I can sense Ashima smile as she tells me about 23-year-old Abida, a young woman who when Ashima met her “did not dare to open her mouth for fear of being heard.” Abida is now teaching computer workshops at the Samanbal in the Kashmir Valley. She has told Ashima, “Now I am like a man of the house, I am treated equally as my brother.”
And the Samanbals are beginning to spread. In the far corner of Jammu along the line of control – too far for Ashima to visit regularly – a group of women has set up their own Samanbal. Ashima has helped the women to forge links with other organisations that will help to sustain them, and is now watching them grow. Before the curfew brought the valley to a standstill, Ashima had begun talks with the Women’s Development Co-operation about finding sources of funding for this and other satellite Samanbals.
This year has seen the Domestic Violence Act passed in Kashmir, and it is now, at its nascent stage that there is opportunity for the women of the Samanbals to make their mark on the bill – to ensure that it reflects the needs of women from all regions.
This is where Ashima’s vision for the Samanbals becomes clear, where rather than small islands, she sees these spaces as a network that brings women together across ethnic, religious and political divides and she is so eager for the curfew to end so that they can continue to spread. She wants to strengthen the existing Samanbals – to create leadership at the community level, and make this collective of women an agency for change. And ultimately she wants the government to adopt the Samanbals, so that all women are able to access a space they can call their own.