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Teaching peace: Civil society peace education programmes in South Asia

Several peace education programmes across South Asia, from the Peace Museum in Karachi to the Sita School near Bangalore, are initiating processes that incorporate ideas of peace and non-violence. But they are fighting for space within the mainstream education system and tend to be confined to private schools, writes Anupama Srinivasan

We know this about peace education in South Asia: there are many peace education programmes, particularly in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; those who initiated them were motivated by many different factors that inevitably intersect between the personal and the political and include both their individual and collective histories; peace education programmes are as much about and for the trainers as they are for the trainees or students; there are several qualified, well-intentioned educators eager to expand the boundaries of learning in their classrooms; there are schools that genuinely want to offer their students education that incorporates ideas of peace and non-violence; in these schools, young people are encouraged to develop their individual capacities to acknowledge and address any violence in their lives (1).

We also know that there is no one single type of peace education programme in South Asia (2). Every peace education programme is defined by its specific context: geographical, political, social, psychological, economic, cultural, demographic and environmental, among others. Peace education also embraces a range of meanings, within the ambit of one overarching objective: usually, to achieve and sustain peace. More simply, we can contend that the process of peace education is two-fold: teaching people (adults, men, women, children) about the potential dangers of violence (in its many manifestations) and helping them develop their capacities to counter violence, thereby enabling them to build (and sustain) peaceful communities.

While there is no obvious taxonomy of peace education, it is evident that programmes have widely differing objectives and processes. Curriculum development, specifically the production of peace manuals for teachers, is the focus of several programmes initiated by non-governmental organisations. Such programmes also seek to establish networks of schools that will use their materials on a regular basis, year after year. The Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre’s School Text Book Project in Pakistan (3) is one such example.

The Kaleidoscope primers produced by Simorgh are “an attempt to counter the culture of intolerance and violence that was being generated by officially produced school texts,” (Hussain, no date). These primers address human rights issues linked to life, safety, education, food, and health and can be used through inventive participatory methods in the classroom. Children are also taught to use logic as a problem-solving tool. For teachers, there is an accompanying guide, to motivate them to use the material effectively.

Says Neelam Hussain, founder member of Simorgh, in a personal interview: “Some of the standard texts were so boring, so badly produced, also very biased, in terms of promoting nationalism and jingoism. As a feminist, a human rights person, the heavy focus on Muslim identity also bothered me. Even more troubling was the complete stranglehold the education system had over the minds of students, effectively closing any possibility for student-led debate.”

Participants at the Children's Museum for Peace and Human Rights, Karachi

Other peace education programmes have focused on establishing safe spaces for children, such as the Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights (CMPHR) (4), based in Karachi in Pakistan. The CMPHR is an example of a long-term endeavour to create and sustain a stimulating space for children to interact in. Originally launched as the Human Rights Education Progamme (HREP) in 1995, this project was a response to the growing violence in Karachi in the early-1990s. HREP was therefore born of the conviction that education had to be socially relevant. To even talk about peace, children first had to understand the world they lived in, and acknowledge and deal with its many complexities.

CMPHR’s museum concept was therefore envisaged as “a multi-dimensional educational space that will provide children with structured opportunities to explore, interact with, reflect upon and understand a wide spectrum of social issues in an enjoyable, interactive and inspiring environment,” (CMPHR 2009). This working model anticipates that schools will continue to come to CMPHR, instead of the other way around. This is the process: any interested school is added onto CMPHR’s mailing list; its students must then actively participate in any or all of the current campaigns. At present, most activities take place during class hours and are structured around specific campaigns. Each school receives five mailings in an academic year, containing posters, leaflets and booklets with lesson plans for teachers. Depending on the nature of the current campaign, schools can choose to use the material in the appropriate session; art classes might be best suited for one campaign, whereas language sessions might be more appropriate for another. At any given point, there are at least 300 schools working with CMPHR, and often as many as 500.

The Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation’s (CDR) programme in Jammu & Kashmir (5) has its roots in specific phases of violence that the state experienced. CDR focused on two main areas -- training schoolteachers across the state to address and cope with issues of violence, conflict, religion and identity in their classrooms; and developing an appropriate curriculum that these teachers could use. Neither process was a mutually exclusive one -- the curriculum was a literal outcome of training workshops and classroom activities.

Over a five-year period from 2001, CDR worked extensively with schoolteachers in the state. Initial workshops revealed that teachers faced the same obstacles as other teachers around the world -- lack of support from the authorities, inflexibility of the official syllabus and therefore their inability to find time for anything “extra”. Sushobha Barve, CDR’s executive secretary, is encouraged by the innovation and courage some teachers have shown. One teacher took her class, made up mainly of young Muslims, for a walk to an area where there had been a large population of Hindu Pandits. As they walked along the river, they passed by broken, destroyed houses, remnants of violence. She then casually began a conversation:

Teacher: What are these houses? Why are they like this?
Students: Some bad people used to live there. Now they’re gone.
Teacher: How do you know they are bad people? What happened to them? Why don’t they live here anymore?

Barve believes that the teacher in question showed exceptional courage in even bringing up the subject, knowing all along that her students would return home and inevitably discuss this with their families. “If we can trigger that kind of initiative in even a handful of teachers across the valley; if they can find ways to use their own methods to pass on things to their students, without always waiting for official sanction…” she says.

Sita School, Silvepura

Young people in rural areas have had fewer opportunities to participate in peace education programmes. Some exceptions include the Garden of Peace day school in Tamil Nadu, also based on the concept of a peace museum. This primary school teaches 100 students from neighbouring rural areas. Although compelled to adhere to the mainstream curriculum, Ramu Manivannan and his team of teachers find ways to maximise outward learning. For example, students learn from an early age to take care of plants, nurture small gardens, and will eventually be equipped, Manivannan hopes, to address issues of cattle and organic farming which are particularly relevant to the local area.

Similarly, the Sita School in Silvepura, outside Bangalore, works with children who drop out of the mainstream education system for a number of reasons. The majority of students at the Sita School are “from the socially and economically underprivileged sections of the dalit community; children of migrant workers, children of uprooted and unstable families,” (Learning Network, no date). These children would normally have limited access to education, for both social and economic reasons.

At both these schools, peace education is integrated into every facet of functioning, as opposed to being a stand-alone curriculum.

Each of the above examples illustrates the strikingly distinct approaches to peace that organisations have chosen to adopt. But all of them face several common challenges, most of all that of sustainability. On the one hand, there is the question of organisations facing a constant resource crunch and having to depend on external funding. This means that programmes are inevitably interrupted just as they are gathering momentum or, worse, forced to shut down at least temporarily. One possible way to circumvent this problem is to continue to focus on teacher training, thereby initiating a process of transferring ownership of peace education to the teaching community.

What is evident is that a peace education programme is not, and cannot be, an independent, stand-alone entity that a well-meaning organisation introduces to a community. In each case, peace educators have had to and will continue to fight for space within the mainstream education system that educates the vast majority of young people in the region.

Finally, there is also the question of affordability and access to peace education. There are projects that work with public sector schools, but these are rare. This means that a large number of NGOs are forced to or choose to implement peace education programmes in private schools that remain out of reach of the average South Asian family. Equally, private schools that have greater access to new resources and ideas and are sometimes more willing to innovate, like the Riverside School (6) or Bluebells International (7) (both in India), are more likely to incorporate ideas of peace and citizenship. We need to find ways to address this issue of access, so as to ensure that students from less privileged backgrounds are not deprived of engaging with such ideas and activities. It would be unforgivably ironic if we allowed peace education to, however unwittingly, become discriminatory in nature.

Treaties are made by governments, peace is made by the people

Two young participants in peace-building programmes recount their experiences and insights

Peace is an extremely elusive concept. So many different levels, so many influential factors. International peace, intra-national peace, peace within communities and families, and, lastly, inner peace. I see it as an inverted pyramid. Logically, inner peace looks like it would be easiest to achieve. After all, by definition, you are in control of your own peace of mind.

Seeds of Peace (SoP) is an international non-profit conflict resolution programme. It started, as do many other projects and movements of value, with a man with a vision. John Wallach, an award-winning author and journalist, founded SoP in 1993 to provide an opportunity for children from the war-torn Middle East to meet and befriend their faceless ‘enemy’, and in doing so, to plant the seeds for future peace. At summer camp in Maine, sitting beside the lake and beneath the pines, teenagers (referred to as ‘Seeds’) from both sides of a border get to know one another as individuals, and as friends. Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Americans all sit together at a table to dine after a day of playing football and basketball, canoeing, singing, and engaging in serious dialogue with the help of experienced facilitators. Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans joined them in 2001, when SoP began to include South Asia as well.

I went to camp in 2007 and 2009. I had never harboured any real stereotypes about Pakistanis, but nevertheless my camp experience was eye-opening. I knew, of course, that we were one country originally; but it never really registered how similar we were. My very first experience with a Pakistani was during my first meal. I’ve forgotten why, but one of the counsellors at my table was trying to explain what a ‘chickpea’ was. He was going on and on about the colour and size and texture, when the boy sitting across me finally said: “Arrey, he’s talking about chole.” I stared at him. “You’re Indian?!” “No, silly. I’m Pakistani.”

After leaving camp, we all kept in touch over Facebook and Skype. In 2008, we went to Pakistan for home-stays (the most anticipated post-camp activity, where Seeds travel across the border and live for a week in the home of a friend from the “other side”). I stayed with my friend Maha. Her mother would make sure all meals were vegetarian, and that I liked what she was going to cook before she started. I met her friends and uncles and aunts. We visited a few schools, and made presentations. At the end of it, all these girls who I’d never met before were giving me goodbye hugs; one even invited me to her home.

Today, I would count a few of these Pakistanis amongst my closest friends. And although this seems irrelevant, it means that when someone around me makes a sweeping statement about how Pakistanis are this or that, I don’t agree. It means that I can distinguish between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people. And it makes me oppose any policy or movement that would harm the Pakistani common man, especially a full-blown war, because I care about these people.

A line oft-quoted at Seeds of Peace is that “treaties are made by the government, but peace is made by the people”. Person-to-person interaction and eradication of stereotypes seem to be the first steps to international peace. It will take a while, but peace doesn’t seem all that impossible now. -- Jahnvi Vaidya

***

Recently, Seeds of Peace-India held a workshop in Vasind, about an hour-and-a-half from Mumbai. Amongst the various things we did, we were asked to come up with a quote of our own; just invent a quote. I thought of this: “The more we try to define peace, the more we realise that it can’t be defined.” Peace is difficult to explain, but it can be shared. In fact, that’s what it’s all about.

Founder of Seeds of Peace John Wallach said: “The enemy has a face.” His vision was for the youth of the world to see the face of their constructed ‘enemy’ and to understand them for who they really are. Dialogue about international conflict is a daily process at camp. Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans come together at camp, along with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians. Apart from these delegations, there are the Americans. The presence of the Americans at camp is often questioned, but I have come to realise that their presence is essential. It is easy for the Indians and Pakistanis to blame all their problems on America. So Americans must be there to present a defence. Without them, the dialogue would not be complete.

For me, dialogue was tough, taxing and yet one of the most enriching experiences of my life. It was not debate, it was much more. Other than that, at camp we played football in the rain, sang songs along the lake, danced, laughed, stayed up nights together and bonded. When we came back to India, we had regular follow-up sessions, meetings, workshops, events. We all sincerely tried to spread the peace we now felt to people around us.

This summer we had a workshop, Voices of the People, where the Pakistanis and Afghans came to Mumbai. They stayed in our homes, met our parents, came to our schools, and entered our daily lives. My parents and family friends met Zohra, my Afghan friend who stayed with me, and they had so much to ask her. They were curious, intrigued and loving. She was loving in return. It was a beautiful process of cultural and emotional exchange. It was an example of how peace can be shared. And yet, my journey has not ended. It has barely begun. -- Ira Chadha-Sridhar

(Anupama Srinivasan is Programme Director of the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce (GRIT) at Prajnya, a non-profit organisation based in Chennai, India. She is a social sciences researcher, with a particular interest in issues related to public health and gender)

Endnotes

1 This article is adapted and excerpted from ‘A Survey of Civil Society Peace Education Programmes in South Asia’, a study published in 2009 and funded by a grant from The Sir Ratan Tata Trust. The study is available in full at: http://prajnya.in/eprsI2.pdf. The research process included several interviews with educationists and peace activists, in person, on the phone, and via email
2 This essay understands peace education as “a process whereby people learn about the dangers of violence, develop their capacities to counter violence and build sustainable peace in their communities”
3  Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre, www.simorghpk.org
4 Children’s Museum for Peace and Human Rights, www.cmphr.org
5 Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, www.cdr-india.org  
6 www.schoolriverside.com
7 bluebellsinternational.com

References

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Infochange News & Features, October 2011