From December 13 to 17, 2018, I was at the South Asian Youth Conference (SAYC) in Mumbai hosted by the Blue Ribbon Movement with financial support from the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. My fellow participants came from India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
What I loved about the conference was its focus on building people-to-people solidarities in the region rather than being overly caught up in geopolitical equations between nation states. I do not mean to say that conflicts over land and water are not worth discussing. They certainly are. In order for those difficult conversations to happen, it is helpful to begin by identifying common ground and human connection through sharing of personal stories.
The conference also provided me with multiple opportunities to reflect on my own practice as a peace educator, the skills that I need to hone, and the path that I need to make as I walk on. The sessions led by Shreya Jani, Akanksha Thakore Srikrishnan and Ashish Kothari were particularly useful for me. A special feature of this conference was the space created for participant-led workshops. I decided to offer one on the topic ‘Gender and Peace’ for a group of youth from India, Afghanistan, Nepal and the Maldives.
Instead of laying out or eliciting definitions of ‘gender’ and ‘peace’, I invited the participants to consider six different scenarios. Their task was to reflect on whether each of these would qualify as an instance of violence or not:
- Parents force a girl to drop out of school after her first period.
- A boy who identifies as gay feels excluded from the sex education class.
- A journalist slaps her domestic help because she suspects that the latter stole her necklace.
- A government form offers only two options under ‘Gender’.
- A call centre employee gets cold treatment from co-workers who don’t like her wearing a burqa.
- The husband slips off his condom while having sex without consent from the wife.
There was heated discussion as participants brought their opinions and biases but also a large measure of empathy to the circle. My objective was to complicate the understanding of gender based violence by drawing attention to identities based on religion, caste, class and sexual orientation that intersect with gender. The conversation expanded to include taboos around menstruation, trans rights, feudal mindsets, Islamophobia, marital rape, and the #MeToo movement.
Peace education, as I often say, is not only about teaching people mindfulness exercises or selling the idea of non-violent resistance. Thinking about peace includes thinking about structural violence, human rights and social justice. We cannot take meaningful action if we are reluctant to pay attention to the suffering around us.