Human rights activist Meena Sharma was on a fact-finding mission in 2006 to report abuses to the media, campaigners, and the UN. She tells Nisha Srinivasan how meeting Creators of Peace has changed her work - and her life.
Hearing of a selfless act in a war zone
Between 1996 to 2006, the Nepalese government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) were in a long-running battle for power, which played out in the extreme atrocities from burning of villages to the abduction and rape of women. According to WorldAtlas.com, an estimated 19,000 people were killed nationwide, and 150,000 people were internally displaced during the conflict. Read the story covered in the Nepali Times here.
This was the backdrop to Meena’s work, as a human rights defender, when she split from her Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Coordination Committee (HRTMCC) team one day in January 2006 to collect data about a crossfire that had happened two days earlier.
Dead bodies were scattered everywhere. Land was so scarce that people buried three bodies per grave and cremated the unidentified.
‘I felt weak looking at these houses with bullet holes. I physically and emotionally did not feel like I was capable of the job,’ said Meena.
In the village, she encountered a young mother boiling salt water over a wood-burning fire to feed her children, who hadn’t eaten in a day.
The young mother told Meena that her son had been born at 6pm two days ago. To celebrate, the family cooked chicken and her mother-in-law ran out to spread the good news around the village. Suddenly at 8pm,they started to hear gunshots and the roof of their mud-and-thatch house started burning. Her father-in-law and husband ran outside to shout to the Army helicopter that had fired at their roof, ‘No! We are not part of the Maoists, we are civilians!’ They were immediately shot dead.
Deciding that it was not safe to leave through the front of the house, the mother dug through the mud walls and retreated from the back to a nearby village - in the panic, leaving her baby behind. At 4am, which she knew by observing the stars in the sky, an officer clad in army colours came knocking on her refuge hut door. She held a baby against her vest, tied around her neck with a shawl.
‘Whose baby is this? I took him from a burning house.’ she asked.
The mother stood up, relief flushing through her as she recognised her newborn.
The officer turned around to go, revealing her back sodden with blood.
‘She said that she assumed that the officer held the baby on her chest and crawled as bullets hit her back,’ said Meena. ‘She said “I did not know who she was, where she was from, if she was from my village. But I got my baby back because of her.”
‘After hearing this story, I was so shocked, I was so moved,’ said Meena. ‘But I did not know what to do..’
‘These are small, common things…’
Later that day, Meena and her team met with the Maoist and Army leaders in the areas separately. They were offered food, rest and given different sets of data such as the number of kills from each side.
‘I did not have an appetite,’ she said. ‘I was not in the mood to respond. I was thinking about how my job as a human rights activist was just to get data.
‘They both gave data on things like how many people they had killed from the other side. But then I finally asked, “Do you know anything about a woman who gave her life for a young boy?” Both said “No these are small, common things in the war, we don’t keep track of.”
‘It made me wonder, who is responsible to document these things? We don’t even have space in our national broadsheets to document these cases. I asked myself, as a human rights activist, how can I identify these stories from conflict?’
Meena sent a sack of rice and some money to the mother, saying, ‘I know that small, one-time thing is not going to change her life but I was able to do something at that time as a fellow human.
Meena then altered her field of work to have a more personal touch; linking women to post-war government compensation packages. Yet she still felt that victims receiving monetary recompense was not enough.
‘I felt like something was missing,’ she said.
Uniting women through Peace Circles
Later, in 2011, Meena experienced another life-changing event - Nepal’s first Creators of Peace Circle to train potential facilitators. It was the first time Meena witnessed women come out of their own shells to speak out. Many of them spoke of gender norms that meant they were required to stay at home after marriage, and of being prevented from speaking up at school.
It was also the first time for many of those women that they felt connected and supported.
Meena has since kept in touch with her Creators of Peace (CoP) colleagues and friends from around the world, including some from Nepal, Kenya, Israel, UK and Australia,
She later teamed up with 12 other women from the Peace Circle and used the tools from that event to hold another in Bardiya district on January 2012. She made sure to invite women from both sides of the conflict. Many of these women were conflict victims themselves.
Meena said, ‘Initially when they entered the room, the Maoist victims sat on one side, and the Army victims sat on the other. There was a clear distinction between the two sides.’
She started off with a few ground rules, ensuring the women that everything they said would remain in the room.
‘When they started sharing, I was amazed at the reaction. When a woman shared her story of rape by one of the warring parties, they all cried and hugged her, no matter which side they were from. These women were sexually harassed, tortured and abducted to aid either side. But they all shared the same pain. By the end of the three days, it was very hard to identify who was from which group.’
Difference between human rights and peacebuilding work
When asked the difference between her previous human rights work and her current peacebuilding work, she said, ‘Human rights monitors do more political work, highlighting things to the government. We deal with the people themselves. We are building women’s confidence and capacity to deal with their own issues. It’s very hard for them to speak out but when they are organised, they can do miracles. Through Peace Circles, we can identify the key women who could potentially do something good for themselves and their village.’ This is especially important, she said, in contexts where women are treated like second-class citizens.
Meena’s next trip will see her travelling to Nepal’s Province Number 2 where she is working with women survivors of acid attacks - women who could not afford to pay sufficient dowries. Challenges lie, as they always have, in convincing the families of women to allow them to attend Peace Circles. The Creators of Peace team has gone so far as to call women’s husbands working in Qatar, Malaysia and other countries to ask them to support their wives’ wishes to attend.
‘The families want each and every detail because they think we might teach them human rights activism and they might start fighting against their in laws,’ Meena explained. ‘Mostly, my response is that it’s not about rights. We just want to create bonding. We see that your daughter has the potential to mobilise your community for peace building, which could ultimately help you and your family. She can maintain harmony in her own generation’.
‘Even then, sometimes we do not succeed,’ said Meena. Another challenge is in the lack of resources. ‘We don’t always get a chance to follow up with specific cases,’ she noted. ‘And money is a big issue that affects it further.’
‘Healing is what I am here to do’
The kind of bonding among women and results that she observed through women’s participation in Peace Circles encouraged Meena to drop her other work roles and conduct Peace Circles full time, even using up her weekends for the events. She finds that the Peace Circles bring confidence and empowerment in a society where men dominate.
‘This is my passion,’ she said. ‘It is not a technical job where you can just read a manual. You need to put your heart, soul and head in it. And It’s not that the government isn’t doing anything. They are fulfilling a material need, but not addressing the inner healing process. Healing is what I am here to do.’
- Meena Sharma is President of the Institute of Human Rights Communication Nepal (IHRICON).