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A thousand dreams, 1,000 voices

By Kamla Bhasin

The 157 South Asian women who are amongst the 1,000 women being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005, are struggling to get access to clean water, control over land and other resources; they are fighting against the destruction of local diversities, building bridges between conflicting communities, and working to protect the human rights of women and other minorities

For those of us involved in the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize initiative, the process itself has been a journey of and for peace. Connecting locally and globally with like-minded people has strengthened our resolve and energised us. For us, this initiative has also been about fighting cynicism and defeatism. It is about fighting the debilitating TINA (There Is No Alternative) syndrome. It is about saying -- in Pablo Neruda's words -- "They can destroy all the flowers there are, but they cannot stop the spring from coming."

This innovative and very political project began in 2003 with the objective of making visible and acknowledging the peace works of women in different spheres and at different levels. Five Swiss feminists and peace activists -- project initiator Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold (member of the Swiss National Council in Berne and of the European Council in Strasbourg), Monika Stocker (City Councillor in Zurich), Rosmarie Zapsl (member, Swiss parliament), Eva Mezger (moderator and journalist), and Christine Menz (communications specialist) -- came up with the idea. They then identified 20 women in different parts of the world to join the team as regional coordinators.

It was as if the time was ripe for this initiative. Everyone could see that without a strong and global peace movement, human survival itself was at stake. A legal entity called the '1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005' was registered in Switzerland . Swiss Peace, an experienced and reputed organisation in Berne , provided the project a home. Impressed by the objectives and commitment of the people involved, the Swiss government, individuals and foundations provided the financial resources.

When invited to be the coordinator for South Asia , I embraced the initiative without a moment's hesitation. I thought advocating for giving the prize collectively to 1,000 women would state loudly and clearly that peace cannot be achieved by one individual. Peace is, and has to be, a collective dream, process and task. In fact, the number 1000 is also only symbolic. It is symbolic of the millions who want and are working for peace and justice; the millions who are saying 'another world is possible'.

I joined because I felt that, through this initiative, we could show the different faces of war and peace. For example, totally avoidable poverty and disease are the most debilitating and dehumanising wars; patriarchal violence is a war against half of humanity. Then there are caste and racial wars; wars against the 'other', like in Gujarat or Sudan or Bosnia . For us in this project, peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is comprehensive human security. Peace, for us, is not possible without justice.

The joint nomination of the 1,000 women from 153 countries was officially handed over to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo in January 2005. On June 29, about 50 press conferences were held in different parts of the world to publicise the names of the 1,000 women. In South Asia alone, we organised 12 press conferences in Bangladesh , India , Nepal , Pakistan and Sri Lanka to release the names of the 157 South Asian women who are amongst the 1,000.

South Asia has the largest number of peace women from any region and India 's 91 peace women are the maximum from any one country. There are 29 peace women from Pakistan , 16 from Bangladesh , 12 from Sri Lanka and nine from Nepal . These figures speak for the amazing work being done for peace, justice, rights and sustainable livelihoods by women in South Asia and the resilience of the people's movements, of which women are an integral and big part.

The nominated women have committed themselves to the cause of peace and justice, often under the most difficult circumstances. About 20% of the nominated women are from the grassroots level. They are fighting against totally unnecessary and avoidable poverty, hunger and disease; struggling to get access to clean water, control over land and other resources; struggling against big dams, and big multinational corporations destroying local diversities, both biological and cultural. These women are trying to build bridges between conflicting communities. They are working to protect the human rights of women, minorities, Dalits, HIV+ people and sex workers.

In our list are several illiterate but 'life-educated', wise women. There are highly literate lawyers, doctors, social scientists, physicists. There are writers, poets, theatre women. Many of these women have turned their personal tragedies into social activism. Each woman is inspiring, each committed and focused. Each woman's work is sustainable and long-term; it is exemplary and worthy of emulation.

The most important tasks for the team implementing this initiative were to define peace, to decide the criteria for selection; to make detailed nomination forms; to fix quotas for different regions and countries and then to invite nominations. The 20 coordinators and the team of eight women from Switzerland have had four meetings since 2003 to take this project forward. Each time, we talked for three or four days from early morning till late at night.

In their regions, the coordinators had to publicise this idea as widely as possible. We did this through our existing networks, Internet, our website and through the local media. The greatest challenge was to get those who work silently in remote areas, and have no access to electronic media, nominated. The existence of effective networks, and enthusiastic response from most people to the thinking behind this initiative and committed work by everyone involved, got us over 2,000 nominations.

After the short-listing and final selection of the peace women, began the tedious task of making short and long, interestingly written profiles of each woman. In most cases, the information provided in the nomination forms was not enough. We had to go back to most women for additional information. Fortunately for us in South Asia , the efficient and committed team of the Women's Feature Service, New Delhi , took over the task of writing the profiles and they did a very good job.

For taking photos of the selected women, we got in touch with women photographers in different parts of South Asia . Gauri Gill, Sonia Jabbar, Sheba Chhachhi and Neelam Gupta from India ; Munira Morshed Munni from Bangladesh and Anoma Rajakaruna from Sri Lanka took photos of many peace women.

This initiative gave us another opportunity to connect and cooperate with a large number of people and organisations. Recently individuals and organisations willingly came forward to help organise the 12 press conferences held in South Asia . Both women and men gave freely of their time and resources because they liked and supported the politics of this initiative.

It will be nice if our 1,000 peace women do get the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, which is the 100th anniversary year of the first woman (Bertha von Suttner from Austria ) getting the prize.

Even if we do not get the prize, women's peace work would have been made visible and celebrated. By October 2005, there will be a book about the 1000 Peace Women, presenting their visions, their work and their life stories. To this end, a travelling exhibition will open in October. There will be a website with details about the work and strategies used by the 1,000 women. There will be several films too to inspire and energise everyone, but specially the younger generation. And there will be a stronger and shared hope and resolve for peace.

(Kamla Bhasin is the South Asia coordinator of the 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005 project; she is also advisor, Sangat, and a well-known feminist-activist)

Women's Feature Service, July 2005