Twice in the last four years grassroots peace activists have received the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, Malala Yousufzai and Kailash Satyarthi were honoured, rather than the favourite Pope Francis.
Slowly the world is waking up to the fact that peace has to be built from within countries, by local people on the frontlines of conflict, through the efforts of extraordinarily brave people like these.
Malala is known across the world for her advocacy of girls’ right to education – a cause for which she nearly lost her life.
At Peace Direct we know her as one of hundreds of young people in the Swat Valley in Pakistan who have been involved with our local peacebuilding project, the Youth Peace Network.
This region is at the epicentre of violent extremism, with links to Taliban groups and influences from across the border with Afghanistan. In recent years, 4,000 people have died in suicide bombings in the area – many perpetrated by young people.
The Youth Peace Network was set up by a brave group of women in their late teens, to prevent their peers from being recruited into militant groups. They do this by identifying, through personal contacts, young people who are at risk of radicalisation.
These may be young men whose fathers were ‘martyrs’ in the struggle against the Russians, or young people who see no hope for themselves in Pakistan’s stratified society and seek a role through passionate adherence to Islam.
Members of the network reach out to them on a one to one basis to begin a searching discussion about what it means to be a good Muslim. The discussions may continue for months, for as long as it takes, aiming to challenge their perceptions.
For example, the common misperception that the West hates Muslims can be countered by talking about the help that has come from the West in times of floods or other catastrophes.
Each conversation will take a different course. What is key is that Youth Peace Network members uphold the importance of Islam, but challenge the idea that the only good Muslim is a fighter.
Even so, they work under threats of violence and worse, and have had to move their offices and homes to avoid attacks from extremists.
But this programme works. Many of the young people identified as potential recruits to the Taliban have given up the idea, and in some cases become some of the most persuasive members of the Youth Peace Network.
For Gulalai Ismail, pictured above, who set up the programme aged 16 with her sister Saba, peace and girls’ rights are closely linked.
When I asked her what gives her the courage to risk her life, as Malala has done, she said: “What keeps me going is when men come up to me and say ‘You have changed my mind, I am going to let my daughter go to school,’ or ‘When I take a wife, I want her to be like you.’ ”
The same connection can be seen across the world – when Boko Haram kidnap school girls in Nigeria, then clearly building peace and promoting women’s rights are inseparable.
Change happens when people from within the community, who are trusted because of their moral courage and commitment to the common good, build relationships of trust, which value young people rather than demonising them, and engage in constructive dialogue, rather than threats.
The Nobel Peace Prize this year is an inspired choice for the challenges that we are facing.
First published on Thomas Reuters Foundation Online