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Friday, May 16, 2014

The Dalai Lama in Netherlands: Buddhist Teaching and Public Talk in Rotterdam

On 11th May, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most powerful spiritual leaders of the world visited Rotterdam, GHRD's EVS volunteer and intern attended this event.

Barbara Mojzes

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most powerful spiritual leaders of the world gave a thought-provoking public lecture in Rotterdam in front of 11,000 people.

Photo: Jurjen Donkers
The 79-year old Dalai Lama, currently living in exile in India surprised the audience with his down to earth attitude, spontaneity and great sense of humor. Wearing an orange baseball cap during his teachings made the lecture even more enjoyable and reminded us about how often we are concerned about improving our body instead of improving our mind.

As the head of a 500 year old religion, the Dalai Lama was not afraid to connect his beliefs to more modern theories from Quantum Physics in relation to questions of existence and the present time. For example, he spoke about a theory which came up with the possibility that time may not even exist. This is because, he argued, if the present moment we are living in turns into the past every second, and in the same second, the future becomes the present, does the present moment exist at all?

His Holiness then explained the three principal aspects of the Path. These are renunciation (the determination to be free), bodhichitta (the altruistic aspiration for enlightenment) and wisdom. We all, “Dharma Friends, Spiritual Brothers and Sisters” want happiness not suffering, but we need to know how suffering and happiness come about. Suffering is always a result of our own actions and the main reason or all the suffering in the world is ignorance, due to the gap between appearance and reality. It is not  technology, state governments or weapons that are our biggest enemies, but our own selfish attitude and ignorant minds.

Sara Fiorentini

Since I started working for human rights protection, one of the main issues I have had to face is that the more religious authorities influence the social and political choices of a country, the less a real integration between different communities is possible.

It is undeniable, indeed, that religions have a great effect on society as well as the opposite, in a dialectical relationship. I have always believed that religions can find a common ground to peacefully coexist and promote the protection of  fundamental rights which are recognized as intangible precepts. Nevertheless, if we do not contemplate the possibility of creating a neutral structure that allows different religions to express freely and to identify their common features, it seems impossible to state the existence of these universal principles. 

To this end, I was highly inspired by the Dalai Lama’s speech about the possibility to get a human rights-framework that allows different religions to coexist in a peaceful way on the basis of secularism.
He stated that every religion talks about love and compassion, as well as teaching self-discipline because it is fundamental to avoid impulsivity and greed. Therefore, the only difference between religions rests on the way in which they promote love and compassion, that is to say that religions do not contradict each other.

The only way to gain a peaceful coexistence between religions is to build every State’s rules on secular principles able to reflect the fundamental teaching of love that every religion shares. According to this pattern, a tolerant society is possible: a society which rests on moral ethics and promotes both individual and communal values. A State should promote these principles by delegating educational tasks to individuals, families and small communities that when working together, have the capacity to build up a local, national and then international idea of tolerance and mutual respect.

Friday, May 2, 2014

In the voice of: SAWERA

SAWERA was introduced to GHRD by Front Line Defenders, an international organization based in Ireland that was set up in 2001. The organization works to protect human rights defenders, like the staff at SAWERA, who are at risk because of their peaceful and courageous work for the human rights of others in their community. Front Line Defenders provides this protection in many ways including providing security grants to improve human rights defenders' physical protection and conducting security and computer training to strengthen their physical and online security. See for more details.  

GHRD was lucky enough to interview a member of SAWERA in order to learn more about their work. We thank them very much for their time and insightful answers!

- Please explain what SAWERA is and where you work?

SAWERA - the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas, works to promote the equal status of women in the tribal society by helping to foster women's social and political rights. We try to improve the lives of the women in the region by promoting women's literacy and employment and educating people in an attempt to combat domestic violence.

We work in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, known more commonly as FATA, of Pakistan because when the Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan in December 2001, the remaining militants retreated to the FATA in Pakistan in order to regroup. This area is located in northwestern Pakistan, just across the border with Afghanistan, and has a population of approximately 4.1 million. Here the militants challenged the fragile tribal governing system in place in the region and exercised their power and control by brutally targeting innocent civilians and thus diminishing the power of the existing governing system.

A map of Pakistan which highlights the FATA region in red

The Government of Pakistan tried to limit the Taliban with a military operation but it was unsuccessful and the militants were able to extend their activities and move towards the bigger cities located near the FATA. As a result, people began to leave their homes in the region and reside as displaced persons in the outskirts of the district. Civil servants, businessmen and humanitarian workers fled the area as incidents of kidnappings and targeted killings increased.

Not only did the militants reject the incumbent governing system by the tribes in the FATA, they also strongly denied women's rights in the region. Female teachers, doctors and health workers were shot and killed which served to scare women back into their homes. Educational and economic opportunities for women diminished to 0%, with women's involvement in decision making and dispute management processes becoming an unattainable dream. The society became increasingly male-dominated and women were viewed as secondary. This was the real inspiration and motivation for the founding of SAWERA.

SAWERA began by organizing meetings with women on the importance of women's rights and education and went on to open a school to educate the girls whose schools had been destroyed by militants in the Khyber Agency district of the FATA.

- Please explain a bit more about the work SAWERA does?

SAWERA works to promote the equal status of women in this tribal society by helping to foster women's social and political rights. We try to improve the lives of the women in the region by promoting women's literacy and employment and educating people in an attempt to combat domestic violence.

SAWERA began by organizing meetings with women on the importance of women's rights and education and went on to open a school to educate the girls whose schools had been destroyed by militants in the Khyber Agency district of the FATA.

- And what is your role within the organisation?

I work as the security adviser for SAWERA. I manage the level of threat against the organization and respond to any security incidents. My duties include assessing an area from a security perspective before any SAWERA staff travel there. I do this by identifying and mitigating the risks and threats. I design security protocols and procedures to provide protection for SAWERA staff and I deliver safety and security training to protect them. Moreover, I also manage responses to security incidents and deal with the media.

- Please tell us more about the people you work with?

We work to help the female half of the population in this rigid, tribal society where there is a strong militant hold. This half of the population have been consistently ignored by tribal administrative authorities since the country was founded in 1947 and since the 2001 influx of militants from Afghanistan, the situation for women and children has become much worse.

In 2008, under the control of militants, dozens of new sanctions against women were introduced in the FATA region, for example they introduced the rule that women were not allowed to go outside unless they were accompanied by a male member of their family. If a woman was found to be breaking this rule she would be severely punished. The Taliban groups based in the North and South Waziristan districts of the FATA announced that women were not allowed to apply for a CNIC card – the National Identity Card, which is compulsory for opening bank accounts, applying for a passport and almost all substantial monetary transactions, such as buying cars, land and other assets. They also insisted that women wear the burqa (traditional scarf).

- What do you think are the biggest challenges and problems that women face in FATA?

Violence against women and honor killings are two burning issues for women in the tribal region, coupled with the fact that the power to challenge these issues lies with the leading male figures in society, to whom women are invisible. There are no institutions or mechanisms for women to submit complaints about their abusers. There are no women's courts in the tribal area.

Furthermore, before the war against terror in Afghanistan, the female literacy rate in the FATA region was 3%. However, when the Taliban retreated from Afghanistan, and entered the FATA, they started pushing their own agenda, demolishing many girl’s schools, claiming that these schools were providing secular education. Then, for fear of more demolitions and bomb blasts, the remaining schools for girls closed. These factors combined to further reduce the levels of literacy and female education in the region which is the third biggest challenge.

SAWERA has worked hard to improve the lives of girls and women

- Please explain some of the innovative projects you have implemented

SAWERA has implemented a wide range of programs in the FATA since its inception in 2004. Women Protection Groups were set up in an effort to protect women from violence, harassment and to engage them in peace-building, non-violent activities. For the first time in the country's history, women and girls are being involved in security mapping and peace-building initiatives. These groups identify unsafe places within their communities and they subsequently go on to link-up with government and non-government institutions for the provision of support on the bases of their identified security issues.

SAWERA also implements an Open Intervention Program to build the capacity of local community based organizations (CBOs) for women in the FATA. This program incorporates diverse training events on the approaches to development in order to enhance the capacity of CBOs in building an understanding about the obstacles that inhibit people, governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations from realizing their developmental goals. These trainings also enhance the CBOs strengths so that they will achieve measurable and sustainable results. This project has facilitated some 30 village-level CBOs to date, with many participants now serving as social activists in their communities, facilitating ongoing developments. 

SAWERA also provides IT (Information Technology) training for women in the FATA. These trainings have provided the participants with skills required for employment, and some have gone on to secure jobs in government institutions, earning a source of income for their families.

- What are the main issues that SAWERA faces?

SAWERA is operating programs in the FATA, one of the most dangerous regions in the world for human rights work and in particular women's rights work.

In June 2012, Farida Afridi, one of the founders of SAWERA, told journalists that she was receiving threatening messages from an anonymous source. These messages told her to stop her work for women's rights and to stop her open criticism of the Pakistani government, the Taliban militants and the male-dominated structure of Pakistani society. In July 2012, whilst leaving her house to go to work, Farida was shot once in the head and twice in the neck by two men on a motorcycle. Later that day, she died in hospital.

Additionally, in 2013, the SAWERA office was bombed, thankfully nobody was injured, but there was a lot of structural damage to the infrastructure. The militants continue to threaten us, demanding that we cease our work for women's empowerment and the promotion of women's rights. The threats still exist, each and every day for us.     

- What do you think SAWERA needs in order to work more effectively?

Funding is key. At present we are operating with limited resources and we do not have adequate funds to provide financial support to victims of the violence. Ideally we would like to have the resources to manage investigation visits within the country as well as rest and respite visits out of the country for staff members who are attacked or under severe stress. Additional funding would also be useful to help us in relocating our office to a safer location so that the space could have the dual-purpose of being an office and a safe-house for staff and families in emergency situations.

- Why do you think international support is important to an organisation like SAWERA?

International recognition acts as an encouragement to the staff of SAWERA. By recognizing the importance of the work we are doing to promote women's rights the international community gives us strength. It also serves to spread the news that such marginalization and discrimination exists in the FATA and hopefully this can lead to more support for these women.

Earlier this year SAWERA won the 10th Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. This was an international acknowledgement that despite the risks and the losses we have faced, the international community is aware of our work and recognizes our courage. It was also an opportunity to extend our global network and to meet with people who will further support the work of SAWERA. 

SAWERA has some global partners including Safe World For Women, Women’s WorldWide Web (W4) and Asian Girl Campaign, who all highlight the importance of SAWERA's work globally.  

- Where does SAWERA see itself in 5 years?

It is our goal in SAWERA for the female literacy rate to be increased by 50% in the coming five years. We also hope for peace in the region, as once peace is restored both boys and girls will be able to go to school safely and happily. As we continue to work to change people's attitudes in the tribal society we hope that they will learn to accept the equal status of women and be open to women's empowerment.
The strength of the women in the region will grow and this will resolve some of the issues women are facing, allowing them to exercise power in areas of decision making in the coming years.

Ultimately, peace is of utmost importance for women in the region to exist in an environment that will allow them to realize their rights. 

Photos courtesy of SAWERA

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.