WASHINGTON, DC: It was when children at the school she runs began painting ambulances, hospitals and dead bodies in the art class that Bushra Hyder decided it was time to actively work towards healing. It was 2009, and there were blasts in her city Peshawar almost on a daily basis. Everyone was traumatised. Those who could, moved to Islamabad, or abroad.
“The violence affected the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa socially and psychologically,” she said, speaking at a seminar at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) on Tuesday. “People lost businesses and loved ones. Blood and death was brought to our doorstep. All this violence really took a toll on the children. Boys played war games, and parents told me their daughters were mangling dolls’ limbs like victims of bomb blasts.”
Hyder began holding counselling sessions for the students. She developed a peace syllabus for her school and started a children’s club (Peace Angels) and a mothers’ club (Mothers of Change) for women who were victims of extreme violence. Peace Angels visit to hospitals and orphanages, “to meet those most affected by the violence and see for themselves the results”. The mothers come to the school to talk to students about the their own experiences and “how to get rid of the hatred”.
The USIP panel discussion, co-sponsored by The Institute for Inclusive Security, highlighted the work of Hyder and other women from Amn-o-Nisa (peace and women), also known as the Pakistan Women’s Coalition Against Extremism, formed in April 2011. The 20 women who came together in this voluntary coalition have been working for years on these issues.
“Amn-o-Nisa is a platform for us to do collectively what we were doing on an individual basis,” Hyder, who also hosts a talk show on Khyber TV, said in an interview after the seminar.Coalition coordinator, academic turned activist Mossarat Qadeem, rehabilitates and de-radicalises young boys and women who have been pushed or driven into the Taliban fold.
The US Embassy in Islamabad supported the travel of 12 women from the coalition to visit the United States in order to meet policy-makers and activists and discuss issues of peace and security. Their Washington schedule included meetings with Ambassador Robin Raphel, Coordinator for Non-Military Assistance to Pakistan, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Nancy Pelosi (D - CA) and Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, Ambassador-at-Large for Bureau of Counterterrorism.
Amn-o-Nisa members from around Pakistan, representing a wide range of professional sectors, lobby for policy reforms in three sectors critical to address extremism and counter radicalisation: security, reconstruction and rehabilitation, and mediums of indoctrination (including formal and informal education). Through community outreach programmes in Pakistan, they also engage with civil society, youth and women’s groups, the media, religious leaders, and the education sector.
Several activists, journalists and US government officials participated in the well-attended event. On Sunday, Amn-o-Nisa delegates head to other cities, including New York, Chicago, San Diego, and Los Angeles, facilitated by the Meridian International Center. Their onward focuses on meeting grass-roots activists and people-to-people dialogue aimed at sharing best-practices and strategies, and improving understanding — much needed in today’s polarised world.