‘Women’s contributions to peace are essential’
During the ‘Talibanization era’ and its consequential military operations, Pakistan witnessed the killings of tens of thousands of people, a mass exodus and vast human rights violations.
Human rights activists were particularly targeted and experienced threats and violent attacks at the hands of militants and other armed groups for their work.
Shawana Shah, a 24-year-old peace and human rights activist, was among those threatened by the Taliban. Despite this, the young activist was not deterred, and continued her efforts to promote peace and protect women’s rights.
‘The Taliban’s threats failed to push me backwards,’ explains Shah. ‘In fact, it gave me the strength to continue my work for women and peace.
‘When our non-profit organization, Da Hawwa Lur (Daughter of the Eve), also received threats from the Taliban, we went low profile to protect our employees,’ says Shah.
Shah co-founded Da Hawwa Lur in 2002 to provide free, legal and psychological support to victims of gender-based violence. The organization, which was officially registered in 2012, also works to promote women leadership in politics and promoting peace. In May 2015, Shah established the Working Women Union in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (a highly conservative region of Pakistan) which provides 300 women – home-based and domestic workers – a platform to fight for their rights.
Besides threats from the Taliban, we also face community resistance – especially in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan,’ Shah explains. In order to overcome this resistance, Shah and her team have hired locals within the region’s tribal belt. With their support, the activists help ‘sensitize the community’ regarding the contributions women make – from peace-building, to conflict prevention and resolution.
‘Repercussions, life threats, abuses and intimidations are part of a human rights activist’s job,’ Shah says, but adds that: ‘The situation in Pakistan, particularly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is very bleak.’
Using the example of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in 2012 by the Taliban in Swat – a district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – for her activism, Shah says that peace and human rights activists continuously remain under threat in the province.
‘I promote peace through peace dialogues, awareness among youth on conflict resolution and religious tolerance.’ She further says that during 2008-2009, she carried out a ‘peace campaign’ through which 500 youth, including young girls, were trained in conflict resolution and religious tolerance.
The activist says that women and girls are the most vulnerable segment of the society and were ‘disproportionately affected by conflict during the Taliban militancy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.’
According to a study, titled Women Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan: Risk and Capacity Assessment conducted by the Democratic Commission for Human Development in October 2016, one in every two women rights activist faces some form of personal threat.
The research (the first of its kind) studied 2,000 women human rights defenders and assessed challenges and risks that they face and their capacity to deal with them. It found that rights activists working in Punjab are the least likely to be threatened, whereas those working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan are the most likely. Incidences include: harassment (34pc), threats to life (23pc), threats to progress of work (29pc), threats to home or family members (12pc) and others (2pc). The research also found that 48 per cent of women human rights defenders received threats at work.
In March 2017, Amnesty International wrote a letter to Pakistan’s Federal Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, over smear campaigns which led to the threats, attacks and murders of human rights defenders. In the same month, on the eve of International Women’s Day 2017, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called upon the authorities to recognize the role of women rights defenders and protect them from discrimination, harassment and attacks.
In a statement, the commission said: ‘Women rights defenders are subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are more vulnerable, particularly to gender-specific violence.’
Durable peace could not be maintained without active participation and greater representation of women, says Shah, but particularly in Pakistan – which, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, is ranked second-to-last in the gender equality index.
‘I believe women are a crucial part of the society,’ says Shah. ‘They can be the greatest peace builders and bring positive change in the society.
‘Women’s contributions as agents of peace are sine qua non for mediations, peace-making processes,’ says Shah. She goes on to add that five UN peacekeeping operations were led by women.
‘I faced social and cultural barriers during my mission of promoting peace and preventing conflicts but every time challenges and barriers arose, they opened new opportunities for me and I learned a lot,’ she says. ‘I overcame the challenges through consistent efforts.’
Following acts by the government, law enforcement agencies, peace and human rights activists like Shah and other stakeholders, ‘peace has returned in militancy-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’ says Shah.
‘It is the youth we have trained, who belong to conflict affected regions, who were able to de-radicalize local communities. The pluralistic discourse and interfaith harmony has given a perception to people to be open about other faiths,’ she remarks.
Shah was awarded the International Mohammad Ali Humanitarian Award in 2016 in Louisville, USA for her work towards ending violence against women and peace promotion. She is also a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization’s Asia Working Group and is one of 200 women who have been recognized for their work in international development (specifically for her contributions to women’s rights and peace promotion) by the European Union.