(Ms. Aditi Bhaduri's bio sketch is available from the webmaster.)
Crafting New Hope in the Conflict Zone
Nighat Shafi Pandit explains conflict precisely: "When two parties do not agree with the views of each other, it creates a conflict. A conflict always starts at home and then spreads in society."
Living in Kashmir, where ordinary citizens have been caught in the spiral of violence between militants and the army, it is striking that the activist uses words like family, home and disputes to explain conflict. But then for women, the personal is always political.
Pandit does not represent the common woman of Kashmir whose voice we usually hear — the economically underprivileged, the rural woman, the 'half-widow' or the one who has lost her husband or son to militancy. In fact, both her father and husband are senior bureaucrats. She has mostly led a comfortable life. Yet, when the Kashmir conflict was growing apace in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the violence became personal. Mohamed Shafi Pandit, her husband and Chairperson of the State Public Service Commission, was an automatic target for militants. Threats to her children were common. Following specific threats to her daughter, her family was given Border Security Force protection. Even her son had to be sent abroad.
Then, when militants attacked her husband, they moved to Delhi. The family returned only in 1997 when insurgency was waning. But the homecoming changed Pandit's life forever. When she saw the widespread devastation and despair, she knew she had her work cut out for the future. "I decided that I had to do something about the situation. So I called some friends and we set up Human Effort for Love and Peace (HELP)," she recalls.
In Kashmir, there are an estimated 30,000 women, who have lost their husbands in "militancy related activities", while 20,000 children have been orphaned. (The State Women's Commission's unofficial figure is 40,000 widows, while unofficially the Public Commission on Human Rights puts the number at 25,000-30,000). Today, if Tasleema, a widow and mother of three, is able to earn a decent living and send her two children to school, it's all thanks to Pandit.
HELP started small. "We began with a school for children of fishermen in one of the backwaters of the Dal Lake," says Pandit. Along with children, women have been the worst victims of the violence that has crippled the state of Jammu and Kashmir for almost two decades. Women constitute 48 per cent of the Valley's voters, and the literacy rate is about 32 per cent. With conflict claiming the lives of hundreds of men, more women are being compelled to become the breadwinners of their families, despite lacking the skills for it. Responding to this predicament, HELP started a special economic rehabilitation programme. "We realised that the women have nothing to sustain themselves with. I have been to villages in Kupwara where one can find three to four widows in one home alone. I know of women who never knew their husbands were militants.”
Six training centres have been established across the Valley — in Kulgam, Sitaharan, Kupwara, Handwara and in Srinagar — that impart training in embroidery and weaving and also extend interest-free loans to women to set up their own small groups. "My aim is to ensure that these women are not reduced to begging. And they are not exploited," says Pandit.
The women who enroll in the programme are divided into groups on the basis of their skills. All the handmade stuff is later sold in Shehjar Bazaar, which is owned by HELP and at exhibitions, which are periodically held in Kashmir and Jammu. The proceeds from the sales are shared with the women and also used to further HELP's work.
If winning the trust of the people was tough, another enormous challenge was the security concerns. "In the beginning people warned me not to move out. After all, my husband had been shot at by militants. But I had faith in God."