This week’s topic on Fostering Wellness: Transforming Stress & Trauma Through Self-Care & Resilience by Dr. Heidi Kar led the class to think deeply about how to best take care of yourself to promote mental and emotional health and wellbeing. The lectures and skill development exercises provided a wealth of information and ideas on how to build your own action that best works for you. The action plan consists of five simple steps:
Step 1: Grounding, Centering, and Rejuvenating Daily Activities to Keep Your Mind Healthy
Step 2: Awareness of Warning Signs That Something Is Wrong
Step 3: Toolbox of Coping Skills
Step 4: Identifying Sources of Social Support
Step 5: Professional Support
A sample plan can consist of daily activities such as grounding, mindfulness meditation (e.g. leaves on a stream exercise) and being in nature. Warning signs can be thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors that indicate your mind is not in the healthiest place. You may be ‘over-worrying’ or finding it difficult to unwind and relax at night. The next step in an action plan consists of creating your personalized toolbox of coping skills you can rely on to either take your mind off of negative thoughts and feelings or help you perceive and approach a situation differently. These can include evidence-based stress reduction techniques focusing on the present moment (e.g. progressive muscle relaxation to release physical tension and help you get out of your mind and into your body), physical exercise or challenging your thoughts and thinking of alternatives and new perspectives, among many others.
If you still feel stuck after using your coping strategies, you might need to reach out to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member, to get support. Finally, if you cannot get the help you need from that trusted person, you might need professional support that is available to you, such as a counselor or therapist.
We learned that developing and implementing your personalized action plan can not only help us become more resilient when going through difficult times, but also increase our overall sense of wellbeing through daily self-care practices.
As Rotary Peace Fellows, it is essential to be attentive to our own mental and emotional health hardships as well as to the wellbeing of those we work with and serve, since we can often witness or respond to situations of conflict. Having these practical tools we learned this week to deploy when needed is of great benefit to us so we can better understand and be better equipped to help the communities we serve.
Laura Viana – Argentina
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31Read More
When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic in March 2020, nations around the globe started closing their borders. In many parts of world, including New York City where I live, life for many became suddenly unrecognizable with partial to full lockdowns and restrictions of movement. The rapid spread of the virus across communities, cities, nations, made clear how interconnected the world we live in has become and how interdependent we are. As the virus started affecting us all regardless of borders or walls, this crisis reminded us of our common humanity and how our lives are so reliant on reciprocal support.
Despite this, COVID-19 has posed a great challenge to the social cohesion within countries and communities as its impact has reached deep into our society, well beyond implications connected to the health sphere. Increased instances of hate speech and stigmatization of certain groups unjustly perceived to be associated with the spread of the virus drastically increased. Similarly, violent extremist groups across the ideological spectrum appear to view this global pandemic and the “new normal” created by the crisis as an occasion to exploit. With a significant increase in online and social media engagement, some violent extremist groups have utilized this as opportunity to spread propaganda and advance online recruitment activities. With youth being particularly impacted as many are confined at home with no physical access to school while experiencing a radical reduction in leisure activities along with lost employment opportunities, extremist groups have taken the opportunity to exploit their feelings of uncertainty. Compounding dynamics, while governments struggle to cope and respond adequately to the effects of the pandemic, these groups have been increasing their spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, ultimately further undermining trust and uncertainty in government authorities.
Addressing all this has placed nearly insurmountable pressures on governments already struggling with the challenges brought forward by the pandemic. In this context, an all-of-society approach is needed more than ever and the role of civil society is essential, particularly at the community level.
In my work, over the past years, I have had the opportunity and honor to work closely with civil society organizations around the world committed to preventing violent extremism and contributing to the reduction of sectarian violence. I have witnessed firsthand their essential roles in assisting vulnerable populations and adapting responses, often in creative and innovative ways, to the local community context. In many circumstances, by serving as one of the main communication channels, especially for marginalized communities, they have demonstrated the potential to support social cohesion in moments of crisis. During these trying times, it has been powerful to see how civil society organizations, including those led by youth, have quickly mobilized themselves through volunteerism, running awareness campaigns countering misinformation and hatred, and staying at the forefront of keeping communities connected and informed.
During the first months of living this “new life”, I remember reading an open letter written by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Laureate and the President of Liberia, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Reflecting on the current situation and lessons learned from the past outbreak she wrote: “Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own when the only solution is and remains based in the community”. Through my professional work complemented by my recent engagements with my co-Class 30 Peace Fellows and the peace practitioner instructors with the Rotary Peace Program at Chulalongkorn University, my convictions and dedications are even stronger that CSOs at the community level are essential and must be supported as part of an all-of-society approach needed to overcome challenges posed by this pandemic.
Alessandro Girola – Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
After ten years of violent communist insurgency, Nepal entered into a peace process in 2006 under international auspices and with domestic pressure. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) agreed to join peaceful competitive politics if a new set of rules, mutually agreed by key actors and endorsed by the people, were set. An alliance of seven political parties, which were in the parliament since 1990, agreed to set new rules, as a reciprocity to the Maoists’ demands. Thus evolved a new political course, the abolition of the monarchy, formulation of a new constitution through popularly elected assembly and restructuring of the state as a point of compromise. Some strong sectoral forces emerged in the meantime to exert pressure on the parliamentary forces and the Maoist insurgents to address Nepal’s ethnic and geographical diversity in the new state structure to ensure that every minority group is able to participate in the state affairs. The concept of federalism, in this way, was introduced in Nepal’s political discourse.
In essence, restructuring of the state through federalization was a tool adapted to Nepal’s political discourse as a compromise among the “People’s Republic” demanded by the Maoists, “consolidated parliamentary democracy” demanded by the democratic forces, “regional self-rule” demanded by the groups operating in the southern plains, and “ethnic self-rule” demanded by more marginalized communities. This compromise gave birth to “participatory democracy” in the place of the existing “representative democracy”. It was the mandate of the entire peace process that includes the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Nov 2006) and other agreements signed by the parties in power with traditionally marginalized groups. I term it as the “software of Nepal’s peace process”.
After seven years of hectic negotiations in two consecutively elected Constituent Assemblies on the content of a new constitution, Nepal hastily promulgated the new constitution in September 2015 when the country was in a state of mental shock caused by the devasting earthquakes of April 2015. There was resentment in the southern plains that has been dominated by groups historically and culturally close to India. The post-constitution resentment was interpreted as a conflict between Kathmandu’s ruling class and Madhes’ ruling class. India tacitly supported the groups in the southern plains and imposed an un-declared economic blockade on Nepal, cutting all essential supplies through legal routes. The Madhes-based party’s call for the creation of a province stretching from east to west in the south was interpreted by Kathmandu’s powerful elites.
Because of the resentments felt in the southern plains, Nepal could not hold elections for federal, provincial and local governments for nearly two years. The conflict in the aftermath of the constitution promulgation was between Kathmandu’s ruling class that believed the political groups operating in the southern plains intended to control major supply routes via India as part of their control exercise, and the political actors in the south who believed they were being treated as second-grade citizens and denied any place in the national decision-making by confining them to a small chunk of land in south eastern plains. While crafting new politico-administrative structures, dominant Kathmandu-based political actors considered how to weaken the “capacity to control” of the groups operating in the south.
Several existing local units were merged to create new municipalities in the name of strengthening their governability and reducing administrative expenses. The number of representatives also were reduced remarkably. There were 54 elected representatives in the past in a Village Development Committee (VDC), but now the entire VDC has been converted into a ward with five representatives in most of the local government units. The creation of huge administrative units has made it impossible for small minority groups to get elected. When rooms are too large, voices are at times too small and cannot be heard easily. To ensure one’s voice is heard, one has to either shout or rise up from their seat and come to the center of the room. The act of shouting and rising from one’s seat symbolizes one’s revolt against the existing system. Nepal’s new administrative structures at the local levels have been crafted in a way that small voices are hard to lift up and be heard.
Now, given these dynamics, there are two methods for ensuring people’s participation in the government systems: 1) the creation of space, and 2) the formulation of an inclusive process. If space or the structure is not favorable for the participation of smaller groups, the process design should facilitate more inclusive participation. Electoral systems and systems for people’s participation during key decision-making can help people more effectively engage in decision-making platforms and outcomes. Nepal has claimed to have adopted an inclusive democracy to advance the goal of participation of the minority groups in decision-making platforms. However, this inclusiveness is limited to the reservation of a seat for a women’s representative and a Dalit woman at the lowest administrative unit. Local elections are held on the basis of the “winner takes all” type of electoral system, unlike at the provincial and federal levels. So, the local governance system in Nepal undermines the basic requirements of a participatory democracy. There are serious compatibility problems between the software or the notion of participatory democracy and the hardware or the space or structures of local government.
Major factors that led to the formation of structures incompatible with the mandates of the peace process agreement is a result of the absence of a conflict-lens in Nepal’s state restructuring, especially at the local levels. The main objective of introducing federalism was to address Nepal’s centuries old hierarchical socio-economic and political order that frequently gave birth to conflict, the latest being the communist insurgency from 1996 to 2006. When people are given the impression that their government is at their doorstep to hear their grievances, many root causes of conflict are addressed, with such causes being localized, spatialized and addressed locally. It stops the conflict from spreading to and escalating in other parts of the country.
Federalization has been used as a means of conflict resolution in many countries over the past decades. Nepal opted to utilize the federal system to end all sorts of discrimination and to promote inclusive democracy. The end of discrimination and the promotion of inclusive democracy are meant to address the root causes of conflicts while managing any existing conflicts. However, federalization has been interpreted through the lens of governability or the lens of good governance. If only governability and good governance were the key objectives of federalism, there would be no need for terming the local and province administrative units as “governments”. The term “government” offers psychological security and helps localize and spatialize the conflict and apply a local remedy. So, I have been looking at our federalization process through peace lens.
While in the rural areas of Nepal, interacting with traditionally marginalized groups, I often used to grapple with a question: “what did the political change in Kathmandu deliver to people in far-flung villages?” My question was natural. They are neither counted as stakeholders within the entire political change process, nor are they entitled to any peace dividend.
While engaged at Chulalongkorn University as a Rotary Peace Fellow with Class 30, I was almost naïve in theoretical aspects of peace despite nearly two decades of direct or indirect work in conflict management. I could hardly relate my experience with the conflict world view and did not have an idea of how peace processes globally have tried to address the concerns of individual citizens. The theory and tools of conflict and development analysis, community-level peacebuilding, inclusive peacebuilding, identity, religion and ethnicity in peacebuilding, means to address violent extremism and media’s role in peacebuilding were only some of the issues that we have explored. The Peace Program has exposed me to more global experiences, and has provided me with an extra lens with which to analyze Nepal’s peace process as successful on the political front and how it has yet to deliver a dividend to rural citizens.
Importantly, the theory
linking practice instructors and resource persons who are strategically engaged
to facilitate the program have shared examples from dynamic contexts globally,
from the Philippines, Northern Ireland to Colombia. In complement, the Class 30
Peace Fellows from different backgrounds have provided me with a wide range of
lenses from which to analyze conflict, peace and development. Exploring non-violent
peace movements, the power of storytelling and transforming stress through
selfcare has equipped me with some additional skills as a peacebuilder. Now I believe I can use these various lenses together
to look at a conflict and apply my skills for peacebuilding accordingly in
better way in Nepal.
 Upreti, B.R., Töpperwien, N. and Heiniger, M. (2009), Peace process and federalism in Nepal: Experiences, reflections and learning. Kathmandu: NCCR North-South.
Yuvraj Acharya – Nepal
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
As a media academic and researcher, I have travelled to few countries on various continents of the world, including Thailand, Turkey, Portugal, USA, Greece, Finland, Canada, Italy, Ethiopia, Scotland (UK), and France. During my visits, other academic’s, researchers, students and others asked me one unique question: “Are you from Gandhi’s country? Are you from India? It’s great, Gandhi’s country”. I replied: “Yes”. During those times, I had mixed feelings: Gandhi has created an entirely new movement in the world. He has developed a strong weapon that does not kill anyone. He has created a new lifestyle. His style is loved by everyone. Yes, I am from Gandhi’s country. That’s why we call Gandhi the father of our nation. Gandhi is called as “Mahatma” (Great Soul). These feelings made me feel proud.
Why is Gandhi known and remembered by people from all over the world, even today? Because, he offered us a wonderful weapon called “non-violent action” so that we may achieve greater peace. Without violent actions, he achieved many great things including independence for India and also religious cohesion. In addition, he taught this new opportunity to many other societies. After Gandhi’s life, many countries, societies, groups, communities are following (except a few) this non-violence style to achieve their peace and development goals. Mahatma is considered as one of the greatest promoters of peace and non-violent activism in the world. In-line with Gandhi, many other great leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, etc., also promoted non-violence movements. In India, it is called “Ahimsha” in Hindi and “Arap Porattam” in Tamil.
The Saint Vallalar of Tamil Nadu said: “vaadiya payirai kanda pothellam wadinen.” This means: “I would shed tears on seeing the crops which are withering for want of water.”
Another Sangam Poet Kaniyan Poongundranar’s “Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kaelir” is depicted in the purpose of the United Nations. This means: “All places are ours; all are our relatives.” If every human being thinks and behaves like this, there will be no violence and peace will prevail around the world.
Non-violent actions like peaceful non-cooperation, strikes, boycotts, marches, rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, wearing black badges are popular. During challenging times, protestors may follow these unique non-violent actions even when they are being agitated and attacked by government agencies like police or military forces. Now, these actions are followed by many groups, communities throughout the world. They are also used to inspire peaceful dialogues.
Non-violent actions are inspiring protestors and government agencies to seek more productive means to solve their problems in a peaceful manner, without damaging public property, and threats to life. Such actions also help to mitigate and reduce the feelings of hate among different stakeholders. Many international agencies, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are also involved as intermediaries for peace keeping, conflicts resolution and transformation. More and more universities are offering peace related programmes and trainings for students and professionals. Research and development activities are also happening in many places.
But, still in many places around the world some governments and groups are using violent and extremist actions which degrades our modern civilization and humanism. It also damages the economy, environment – natural resources, as well as causes the loss and grave impact on human lives. We lose our humanism, we forget our good deeds, we forget peace and act uncivilized. That’s why there are bigger challenges before human beings. One very important challenge among them all is: “The greatest challenge for human beings is to behave as human beings.”
In the name of caste, community, religion, gods, we hold many biases. So, these biases contribute to violence and full-scale war. More than all of these biases, humanism is very important. If we want to develop a humanistic approach in all that we do, we must be rational thinkers and approach our lives thoughtfully. Civil society should not believe whatever they hear, they must check the truth / facts, non-humanistic scenarios and apply them to our understanding. This thoughtful and rationale thinking will contribute to non-violent actions and peace in our world.
As Rotary Peace Fellows, we can play an important role in changing the most challenge to worse things in the world. We can learn, practice and implement non-violent actions. Also, we can demand that our governments—through dialogue, advocacy, lobbying, etc.— utilize the positive non-violent tools like peace dialogues and more humanitarian approaches.
Peace studies should be included in more schools’, colleges’, and universities’ curriculum and encourage students to follow non-violent actions from a young age. Young people certainly can and are changing the world in a positive way. If we are promoting seeds of peace among our youth, they will grow bigger and become taller trees that promote peace in the future of our world.
Dr. Arulchelvan Sriram – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
2.3 million learners are impacted by school closures and a national lockdown in Jordan due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The number includes 230,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Even before the pandemic, Jordan’s education system was under great pressure to provide quality education; with poor infrastructure, low basic literacy and numeracy levels, combined with older methods of instruction, violence and bullying. This has resulted in heightened levels of frustration among students, parents, teachers, school leaders, and educators even with enormous funds and support provided by the international community
Since the pandemic, there have been great efforts to move to online platforms. Many of these efforts involve engaging learners, educators, and parents in new ways using some form of technology. This includes creating partnerships with the private sector to digitalize lessons and establishing digital infrastructure in rural areas which will help over 16% of the students in Jordan who lack internet access; 16 percentage points below the OECD average.
I feel optimistic that after the pandemic ends, there will be lots to learn from and builds upon.
One thing is the appreciation and the recognition for teachers and the role of school that has been underestimated for years. Parents are more appreciative as they struggle to work with their children at home. Educators became heroes and heroines doing the best they can to deliver lessons, even with limited resources and limited skills in using advanced technology.
We can also see the serious efforts to empower parents to take an active role in their children’s learning and gain skills that are involved in teaching. On the other hand, online learning has made it possible for educators to be more comfortable in using different technologies and to improve their skills, which leads to improved learning for students. It is very important to maintain this relation with parents after the reopening of schools. It is also important to establish more partnerships with different sectors so schools become centers for ongoing learning and community engagement.
It has always been the case that many public schools focus on academic subjects and the core interest is to pass and score high in exams. Once schools reopen, we need to reconsider this focus. I think schools can be a place to develop skills needed for future work and employment, a place to connect, communicate, practice different skills, and learn how to think critically. Students should learn at their own pace subjects that can be delivered online. There is no need to be locked in class rooms for hours to learn subjects that already exist online.
Amid the chaos, it may be hard to see the bright side, but for me this transition is needed to establish more creative and sustainable education reform.
Karam Hayef – Jordan
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
It was a steaming-hot afternoon in southern Mexico.
We left the final small market town and traveled nearly an hour on rutted dirt roads to reach this indigenous riverbank community of Carmen Grande, in Las Montañas del Norte.
This was before the pandemic, and we had come to plan a church-based cattle co-op project.
Several young boys were eager to show us around. “This is our school,” one of them announced proudly.
It was early afternoon on a weekday, and I asked about classes. “Oh, we don’t have school this week; the teacher didn’t come.”
All four boys appeared to be between ages 8 and 12. “What grades are you in?” I asked them in Spanish. They looked puzzled and spoke in Tsotsil among themselves.
One small boy said that he was in the third grade. “Me too,” added a 12-year-old. The other two shrugged their shoulders and said that they weren’t sure.
The educational system appears to be failing these children. While data indicates a 70% literacy rate for the community’s approximately 475 residents, most persons age 15 and older have received an average of only three years of formal education.
Teachers come from outside the community and rarely speak the native language of their students, and children speak limited Spanish when they enter school.
Mondays and Fridays are teacher travel days, so children only have three days of classes per week. For students to continue studies past 6th grade, they must leave their village and go to a regional boarding school.
Since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been particularly concerned for the plight of the most vulnerable populations, including women, children and youth.
Students in Latin America and the Caribbean make up 60% of all children worldwide who missed an entire year of school due to COVID-19, according to a March 2021 UNICEF report.
As 2020 drew to a close, more than 97% of students across Latin America remained physically out of school, and schools throughout the region were fully closed for 158 days between March 2020 and February 2021.
Work with community-based projects in Latin America helps me to understand the factors that contribute to migration, and several key points stand out.
1. People want to live in safety and security, without fear as they go about the daily routine.
2. People want jobs so they can earn enough to support their families.
3. People need hope for a better future, which often comes through educational opportunities.
In just a few short years, these children for whom education opportunities are meager at best will reach the age when many decide to leave their community to seek work.
Some will end up in larger towns and cities nearer home, but many will go to El Norte – to the United States or the northern states of Mexico where there is work in both agriculture and factories.
Youth from rural, indigenous households with little education, no marketable skills and who live in poverty, have a bleak future in this part of Mexico and Central America.
They’re frequent targets for local gangs at home, and “going north” takes them into cartel country where they’re extremely vulnerable to either recruitment or exploitation.
Migrants often cite gang violence and the recruitment of youth as a major factor for migration.
During COVID-19, with schools closed, teens have much more free time on their hands, and this has been especially good news for gangs and cartels. The young adults are a source of revenue for the cartels – they’re smuggled, trafficked, kidnapped and victims of extortion.
For some youth, gang affiliation provides a sense of belonging and a means for earning income to help their struggling families. For others, it’s a matter of life or death.
COVID-19 has devastated many families, particularly those living on the edge of poverty. Education provided hope, and the prolonged closing of schools will have long-term consequences.
Students fall farther behind in learning, and many will not return to the classroom. Without opportunities for education or employment, many will be recruited by gangs or violent extremist organizations.
This will exacerbate the desire to migrate.
With COVID lockdowns and border closings, many migrants are faced with few options Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, the US – these countries are already dealing with an overwhelming number of desperate migrants.
For children like my young friends in Chiapas, they are relatively safe in their rural, remote village, but the cost of obtaining land to farm and the risk of crop failures leaves them with little hope for the future.
Many will “go north” to seek employment to help their families, in spite of the danger. Every village family has its story of a youth who has fallen victim to extortion, rape and victimization by the cartels or recruitment by gangs.
In an ideal world, all children and youth would receive a quality education in a stable, safe setting that would provide them with marketable skills and tools leading to employment that pays a living wage.
Post-pandemic, we should be strengthening communities by investing in sustainable development and improving educational opportunities. In this way, we decrease the risk of youth engagement in violent groups and also the need for migration.
In Virginia, where I serve as a social worker among migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, I hear their stories and share their pain. These are not people who easily choose to leave home; they have very compelling reasons to leave behind everything they know and those they love. Being a Rotary Peace Fellow (Class 30) has enhanced my understanding of the systemic, long-term effect of violence and conflict, and the need to work for community-based solutions that will eliminate the need for migration. I’m thankful for my wonderful colleagues and the perspective that each brings from her or his country, culture, and profession.
Sue Smith – USA
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ is related to exile, yearning, and the loss of home and country. Ali has highlighted the tragedy in Kashmir by comparing it with Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
In his collection of poems, Ali writes about “the land of doomed addresses” where “everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home”, where from no news is reported, and where violent death is common.
‘The Country Without a Post Office’ is about the Indian administered Kashmir, a conflict-hit region in the Himalayas contested by two nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan. It is about the identity of its people, its ethno-religious identity. It is about the control of its 12.5 million people by a militaristic state.
Being born in Kashmir, I grew up conscious about identity, the identity of being a Kashmiri, the identity of being a Muslim. Our ethno-religious identity is something that changed the world around every one of us for decades to follow.
Getting shot at by an Indian Army soldier when I was in my 7th standard, seeing one of my cousin’s throat slit after being picked up from a soccer field, and watching my uncle getting detained scores of times for not subscribing to the pro-India views on Kashmir, I saw conflict up close and realised it was all because of our distinct identity, of being part of a contested Muslim-majority region ruled by the Hindu-majority India.
In the past three decades, according to different rights groups, over 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Kashmir, over 8,000 subjected to enforced disappearances, thousands arrested and orphaned, and hundreds raped.
The last six years of Hindutva resurgence in India has further complicated the matters with people from Indian mainland often questioning the aborigine Kashmiris to leave their homeland to migrate to Muslim Pakistan, the Hindu bureaucrats and police officers from Indian mainland having no understanding of what is happening in Kashmir being airlifted to rule the disposed population.
The iron-fist rule of New Delhi is driving home the point for Kashmiris that they are being victimised by the Indian militaristic state just because of their distinct ethno-religious identity.
The youth in Kashmir, mostly educated, are responding by joining militant groups and launching a rebellion against New Delhi.
This way, the radicalised Hindutva groups in India are pushing Kashmiri youth further toward the path of radicalisation.
This is unfortunate considering that while between 1989 and 2008, Kashmiri movement against the Indian rule in the region had been armed, it shifted to a path of non-violence and the peaceful street protests of the years 2008, 2009 and 2010 are a proof. However, the Government of India’s dealing peaceful protests with excesses pushed the Kashmiri youth to the wall, which was visible with highly-educated youth including engineers and Ph.D. scholars joining the armed movement in the subsequent years.
Seeing these youth, at one-time no more than around 200 to 250 by New Delhi’s own accounts, becoming sitting ducks and a fodder for around one million Indian soldiers in the region has disturbed not just me but every thinking individual in Kashmir.
Understanding what can be done to stop the daily bloodbath in Kashmir and save the next generation of Kashmiris from an unceasing genocide, and the assassination of my former editor Shujaat Bukhari right outside his office drove me to this course.
I am still looking for the answers but the fellowship has not just provided me an opportunity to study my own conflict in a better way but also introduced me to the world of conflicts and transformation.
Fortunately, it has also helped me connect to the people who are doing their bit to make this world a better place by helping foster peace in the conflict-hit regions.
We are already in the 12th week of the fellowship and it has been an overwhelming experience for me to have attended the lectures of some of the best academicians, practitioners, policy analysts, strategists and peaceniks and learned from their experiences.
More than anything else, from this fellowship I have learned that the distinct ethno-religious identities of people living in other parts of the world have, just like us, become a cause of their being subjected to atrocities.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia; Nagorno-Karabakh on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia; Transnistria in the land near Moldovo’s eastern border with Ukraine; Novorossiya (a confederation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the breakaway areas in the Ukraine), the Republic of Crimea, East Prigorodny conflict, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Pankisi Georgia crisis, Adjara crisis, Russo-Georgian War and Euromaidan just like the more prominent Palestine-Israel and Northern Ireland conflicts all have the distinct identities of the people in these regions as the preeminent contribution to the conflict.
While Agha Shahid Ali’s illustrates in his ‘The Country Without a Post Office’ the agonies faced by his people because of their distinct ethno-religious identity, the 13th century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi’s poem ‘I am not from anything’ leaves us thinking.
I am not from anything
What is to be done, O Muslims? For I do not recognise myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature’s mint, nor of the circling heavens.
I am not of earth, nor of water, nor of air, nor of fire;
I am not of the empyrean, nor of the dust, nor of existence, nor of entity.
I am not of India, nor of China, nor of Bulgaria, nor of Saqsín;
I am not of the kingdom of Irãqain, nor of the country of Khorãsãn.
I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise, nor of Hell;
I am not of Adam, nor of Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwãn.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
He is the first, He is the last, He is the outward, He is the inward;
I know none other except Ya Hu and Ya man Hu.
I am intoxicated with Love’s cup, the two worlds have passed out of my ken;
I have no business save carouse and revelry.
If once in my life I spent a moment without thee,
From that time and from that hour I repent of my life.
If once in this world I win a moment with thee,
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph for ever.
O Shamsi Tabriz, I am so drunken in this world,
That except of drunkenness and revelry I have no tale to tell.
(Faisul Yaseen is a journalist based in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir)
Faisul Yaseen – India
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
Closing the gender gap worldwide could reduce hunger for 100 million people and yet Ugandan women have unequal rights to land, a fundamental building block of food security and poverty reduction. Women face multiple challenges that limit their ability to realize secure land rights, including social, cultural, economic, and political factors. Inequality and uncertainty in accessing, controlling, and owning property for women deprives them of the opportunity to participate in national economic development, and negatively impacts our country as a whole.
Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA) in partnership with the Ministry of Lands, Housing & Urban Development is implementing a project “New challenges for women’s land rights in Northern Uganda” This program strengthens land administration systems and increases security of land tenure for land and property owners. As a result, land disputes and displacements will decrease, property-based revenue generation and investment will increase, and Uganda’s economy will grow stronger. Women must be included if these positive changes are to be realized. To this end, FIDRA have developed strategies and interventions to encourage women’s participation, and help women overcome the many challenges they face in securing their land rights.
In the Ugandan society, women are often perceived as subordinate to men. Patriarchal systems promote male dominance over women in resource access, control, ownership, sexuality, reproduction and even women’s ability to use their own conscience and labor. As a result, women are treated as economic dependents to men, both socially and legally. Post-Independence, Uganda enacted the Intestate Succession Act to ensure that nuclear families are guided by codified laws on how property is to devolve were one dies without leaving a will behind and to reduce the violations against the rights of women to inherit thereby promoting equality. The Act regulates the devolution of a deceased person’s estate amongst the surviving spouse, children, dependents, and other relatives. These regulations play a key role in determining who should inherit from the deceased, the extent of what they should inherit, their rights and duties, and who should be disqualified from inheriting.
While the Intestate Succession Act provides women with some protection, there are ongoing impediments to their inheritance rights. Frequently, patriarchal customary principles are applied to ensure that male relatives inherit land and property to the exclusion of widows. These customary principles do not conform to the gender equality advancements promoted by the Constitution and other international and regional instruments. Therefore, the Intestate Succession Act’s historical development has received a lot of criticism over the years which has led to its amendment. However, regardless of the Intestate Succession Act having been amended to protect the rights of women, there are still a lot of long-standing challenges as regards women’s rights to inherit from their deceased spouses.
‘’Despite the law providing in section 9 (1) (b) that a surviving spouse shall have a life interest which shall determine upon that spouse’s death; in practice, this provision applies predominately to women alone because of society’s perception that property should be registered in a man’s name. This ultimately becomes a hindrance to women accessing and owning landed property.”
Women in polygamous marriages are provided weaker protections under the Intestate Succession Act. Section 10 identifies a surviving wife as an extra person to obtain a child’s share, as opposed to inheriting a share in her own right. This provision is blind to the contributions a widow would have made in the marriage, especially if she had no children or has fewer children than the other wives. Considering this provision, surviving wives to a polygamous marriage that have more children benefit more than those without or with fewer children.
The appointment of administrators can also disadvantage women. The Intestate Succession Act provides for the appointment of administrators to a deceased persons estate and specifies that the role of an administrator is to distribute the estate in accordance with the law. However, experience has shown that many administrators consider themselves beneficiaries of the estate and grab or misuse the property, thereby disadvantaging the surviving women and children. Local Courts are used frequently and a large numbers of administrators are appointed by these courts. Local Courts are founded on the administration of customary law prevailing within a locality and, as a result, the justices may overlook the appointment of the deceased surviving wife as an administrator.
The Ugandan government has made great efforts to recognize and promote women’s land rights, including through the establishment of the National Gender Policy and the Gender Equity and Equality Act. The government has also issued a directive to the Ministry of Lands, Housing & Urban Development and the Local Authorities that 50% of land allocations must be to women. Unfortunately, enforcement remains a challenge, particularly regarding inheritance rights. There is need to review and revise the Intestate Succession Act and to set in law the percentages that women should inherit in polygamous marriages. Non-progressive legal provisions such as the one reflected in the Intestate Succession Act, in which a widow loses a matrimonial house if she remarries, should be repealed. Harsher punishments should also be imposed on those who interfere with the deceased’s estate to the disadvantage of women and children, to deter would-be offenders. Local Courts should strive to promote women’s equality and empowerment in the appointment of administrators by not referring to customs that are patriarchal in nature. To this end, robust land governance interventions that mainstream gender ought to be considered in the promotion of women’s access, control, and ownership of land, to ensure that Ugandan women have the opportunity to build their futures and pathways out of poverty.
In five years, I would love to be an industry of peace and reconciliation expert that others can come to for ideas, help and strategy. Connect and create network of amazing peace promoters, managers, ambassadors, mentors and managers, so I’d like to be able to provide similar guidance, potentially taking on a leadership role. Finally, I’d like to have taken the lead on several projects on peace and economic development. I’m motivated by connecting my initiatives to larger goals and I’m excited by the prospect of getting more experience in that
With the above shared, the Rotary Peace Fellowship is providing me a safe space for galvanizing and enhancing my leadership skills to respond to land related conflict dynamics and inequalities in my country. With our opportunity to learn and share knowledge, critique existing policies, leadership, and structures, I feel more capable to design and apply approaches for social change while challenging structures that undermine peace building, like inequitable lands rights in Uganda.
Ocen Ivan Kenneth – Uganda
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
I spent most of the last six months before starting my Peace Fellowship living in a tent in the northern NSW rainforests. It seemed safer for my physical and mental health to escape the rising COVID cases – and the corresponding lockdowns – in my home city of Melbourne by travelling up north and heading for the forests. This was quite a change from working the 12hr days in front of screens doing academic writing to finish my PhD. Yet, I found that these forests became an important learning environment.
I found unexpectedly grace in surrendering to the constraints and ease of living this simple, close to nature life, during the pandemic times of massive economic and social upheaval. The lack of regular internet or phone connection (you had to walk up to the hill and hold up a phone to get signal) allowed me a much appreciated separation from the constant media pandemic coverage, of which I was a previously a helpless consumer – replacing it with a smaller, vastly more intimate world, in which I was an active co-participant with a myriad of life forms: being constantly barefoot my feet were spontaneously educated in the intricate rainforest micro-topology, with the attendant health benefits from electrically grounding my body… my ears grew slowly attuned to the myriad of bird calls that saturated the area, weaving a rich sonic tapestry… my eyes delighted in the forest’s lush visual delights – glowing fireflies, golden sunsets, lush green undergrowth, with my myopia providing a deeper embodied engagement… in sum I felt my senses expand as they encountered this rich banquet of life, a sumptuous feast so different than the human concrete and asphalt urban world where I had come from.
During all this time the Peace Fellowship was my only planned next step post-PhD, and I waited with my partner to see whether we would be headed to Bangkok in January, since applying in way back in May 2019. But when global COVID dynamics forced the program into being delivered online, we left to the forest for the 18hrs drive back to Melbourne, packing up my house of 8 years and moving out to the small town of Castlemaine, barely 1.5hrs away (very close in the Australian context!). This was near to where I was born, on a block of land adjacent to another beautiful, yet very different forest.
It was from this place that I commenced the Peace Fellowship, joining the zoom calls as the sun sank low behind my screen – knowing that it was simultaneously rising for some of my fellow participants on the other side of the world. It was an immense joy to finally meet with these 18 inspiring other fellows, who had similar long and winding journeys to the program. This feeling was intermingled with a sadness that we were so far apart, with just a slender wafer of glowing pixels connecting our vastly different worlds. Seeing these other faces, many who were so experienced in peace-building and international work, I initially wondered how myself – who had spent so long working for environmental change – could contribute. Luckily as the conversations and classes – and days and weeks – went by, I remembered what I already knew in my head, heart and gut – that true peacebuilding encompassed both our relationships with each other, and the natural world around us.
I found these insights were interwoven between the on-screen Fellowship conversations and my in-person morning forest walks and meditations. Just as this forest was slowly revealing its hidden secrets, written in the language of pawprints, seed-pods, spider webs and bird calls, the on-screen conversations were making visible other more abstract relationships. The latter reminding me that conflicts all around the world ran through both nature and people; that people were killed regularly trying to defend their forests from destruction, not as ‘untouched wilderness’ but instead as these wild places were their pharmacies, food markets and even direct kin. In making peace with nature, we need to simultaneously make peace with each other; for all of us ultimately rely on the natural world for life itself – in Paul Hawken’s words – You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet.
My fellowship conversations also have helped me remember my own privilege – of a (passably!) white heterosexual male in an economically developed Western country. I am far from rich in my own country, but in the top 15% rich worldwide. I have the privilege of walking so freely through this forest every morning, as if the land belonged to me. Although it is a designated National Park, there’s no fence separating its brown soil from that of my property, that according to Australian law, I own exclusively. Yet this land was stolen with considerable violence from the original Indigenous inhabitants people barely two centuries ago, as part of state-sanctioned genocidal campaigns. I ponder this invisible bloodshed while looking out onto this land, that now looks so peaceful, and alluring. Discussing restorative justice in class reminds me to make the tiny step of ‘paying the rent’ – giving a regular contribution to a local indigenous group. But I need to take many more steps.
Unlike many other participants who are bravely juggling the Fellowship with their paid work, I have chosen to allow more space at this time of personal and professional transition and learning. Although it is a tension I sometimes feel acutely that I’m not ‘doing enough’ for positive change. Here the words of peace-pioneer Elise Boulding reassures, and has a profound resonance with me: “For whatever energy I have left, I want to use it in a positive way. I’m here in a way of loving the world. If we were all here in a spirit of loving the world, we’d have a very different world—all living things making room for each other.” She invites us to consider what peace really looks like right here in our local context. In my country so many are materially rich, yet feel a scarcity of spirit, feeding into polarised politics and mindless consumption, under the enabling structures of late capitalism. In the same week as I learnt about Boulding through my on-screen engagement, I took a true wealth quiz in-person, reminding me of viewing abundance holistically.
During my daily morning walks in the forest before the Fellowship sessions, I’m reminded that we know so little about the natural world that is all around us, even in the cracks in cities, or on our bodies, and how this can be injurious for own wellbeing, let alone that of non-humans. When I stand before my favourite tree, I see the intricate, barely visible relationships between insects, plants and birds, that have co-evolved over millennia and are so fragile in the face of human-driven climate change and habitat loss. An unfolding invisible global catastrophe arising from humankind’s systemic violence towards nature. While we were collectively absorbed in the human impacts of COVID last year, the UN estimates that over 50000 species went extinct, and half of the earth’s species may disappear by 2100. But these numbers mean little to people without personal, lived stories to locate and develop our relationship to these living creatures – just as statistics of conflict deaths on the other side of the world fall on our deaf ears. Yet it is vitally important on an intellectual and spiritual level to confront this sobering reality, rather than stay in a state of numbness, as this deep attention is the foundation of action. As Hawken articulates the paradox in Blessed Unrest – If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. Through each Fellowship session I’m meeting and learning about these inspiring people and projects, deepening this paradox, seeing brighter lights amidst darker nights.
This passion thread – of seeking to amplify these positive stories of grassroots change, came through from my years of PhD design-based action-research, where I used participatory photography to document, share, and connect grassroots youth responses to environmental impacts across cities in Bangladesh, China and Australia. Now, spending each Fellowship session sharing conversations, stories, and ideas with changemakers from around the world, I am motivated to develop a social change initiative that continues this thread – planning a global online platform to provide virtual training and support to youth-led environmental peace projects, and through doing so expand their storytelling reach and impact.
As I develop these ideas, and engage with the Fellowship, my father Leong looks down at my screen through his photograph on the back wall, holding a glass of wine and a philosophical expression. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2015, having seen me start my PhD, but not this current learning adventure. He came to Australia on a boat from Malaysia when he was 17, told by his father to study Law in the closest Western country, then return to marry a good Chinese woman. Instead, he studied economics and teaching, and married a somewhat rebellious Anglo-Australian social worker, my mother Wendy. Her more conservative father had co-founded a rotary club years before, which I had myself joined many years later and had been subsequently involved with in its international portfolio, sowing the seeds of my own Peace Fellowship journey.
My dad had a gift for tending gardens and introduced me to the wonders of nature through wading in rockpools near Melbourne as he had done within the mangroves near his hometown of Malacca. My mother loved wild forests and helped me see that to live truly sustainably, necessitated a total revolution of consciousness beyond humanism. In the words of her mentor, Thomas Berry, it was to experience the cosmos as a communion of subjects, rather than collection of objects. The ripples of this silent revolution call for an eco-centric perspective on environmental peace building – going beyond the anthropocentric standpoints of viewing the environment as passive natural resources to be used optimally amongst human actors – instead recognising the intrinsic value, agency, and rights of nature itself from a more-than-human standpoint. I’m honestly not sure of how I will knead this somewhat radical perspective into the dough of my Fellowship project, but perhaps the current baking process of conversations with inspired youth-focused change agents around the world will yield insights!
However, I’ve found such ideas have already been coming to me from a less-intellectual, more earthy perspective. At the same time as I started the Peace Fellowship, I commenced a permaculture course at the local community centre, and have found inspiring synergies with peace-building. Permaculture’s creative principles of caring for the earth and each other align closely with holistic peace principles emphasising our moral imagination, personal and societal transformation fuelled by ‘critical yeast’. By supporting independence from fossil fuels and other global commodities that are key causes for conflict, permaculture fosters peace globally.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. I thank you for your patience in navigating one that has been somewhat less linear, perhaps more like an unfolding, bi-directional spiral, which has in fact mirrored my experiences so far through the journey to, and through this incredible Peace Fellowship. Reflecting on this spiral brings a vivid memory – feeling the warm Bangkok air waft in through the window of a tiny Chulalongkorn University student apartment back in August 2016, when I visited a then-current Peace Fellow friend. I hope and trust that the next uncoiling strand of the spiral will allow me the opportunity to physically share that same balmy Bangkok atmosphere with all my current Peace Fellow colleagues next January, as we see what next part of our peace journey story is revealed.
Michael Chew – Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More
I was born a happy and healthy boy, with my advent into the family igniting joy and celebration. My father’s desire for a male child was finally realized. At about seven months old I was already running around the house. By the time I turned one year old, my dad bought me my first soccer ball. I would get up early, while everyone else was still in bed, and play in the house, knocking things over. But one night, before I turned two, something mysterious happened, or at least that was what I was told. My father worked as a security officer and worked nights. According to my mother, late one night while everyone slept, a witch dragon sent by some witches mysteriously entered our house and swallowed both my legs, rendering me impotent.
As I grew up, I couldn’t stop wondering, in my little mind, why witches were so cruel, even though I had only seen pictures of them in movies and fairy tale books. When I asked my mom why I became a target for the evil beings, mom said they were enemies of my father’s and they attacked me because they couldn’t get my dad. I lived with extreme hatred for witches on the basis of mommy’s little story. And I carried this story of bewitchment for over two decades of my life.
My first encounter with the word polio was in the early 1990s while I was a student at St. Patrick’s School (an all-boys school). I was a troublemaker in school, always embroiled in some sort of trouble. My complaints were regularly in the Principal’s office. Admittedly, I craved so much attention because there were so many things I couldn’t do as other boys; and so being troublesome got me some attention. So one day when I was caught in one of my pranks, I was summoned to the Principal’s office. The school’s principal then was one of the Catholic Nuns that was later murdered by NPFL rebels headed by Charles Taylor. Sister Shirley Kolmer was a PhD in Mathematics. When I got to the office, she was raged as she asked me, “young man, why do you think you need so much attention,” at the top of her voice. I was ice-cool as she recounted my number of offenses. After threatening me with a last chance for suspension, she told me to get back to class. While I was walking away to class she called me back and asked, “what’s wrong with your legs, were you born this way?” Then, like I always did when asked concerning my condition, I told her mommy’s dragon tale. Sister Shirley looked at me and said, “I think you suffered a polio attack.” I had no Idea what she was talking about, even though I was a junior high student. Later, as I grew up and began researching polio, all the shattered pieces of my mother’s bewitchment tale seemed to come together and make a lot of sense.
Indeed, a lack of knowledge is a major reason for most of our human problems. When Liberia launched the first polio eradication campaign in 1999, I was already in my mid-twenties. In a bid to unmask this myth that seemed commonplace in our society, I embarked on research to find out what other people with disabilities (PWD), specifically polio suffers, knew about their physical condition. With my training in journalism, I decided to conduct a small study, targeting ten PWDs in all, including six males and four females. The result of my little survey, just within the greater Monrovia area, actually revealed the level of ignorance about polio amongst PWDs. Of the ten persons interviewed, four persons had heard about polio, but did not have many details. Also, three of my interviewees knew polio to be a crippling disease, while three other persons were just like me before my meeting with Sister Shirley, “no idea!” But more interestingly, all ten persons attributed their conditions to some mysterious and unexplained source and not polio.
Ignorance is a major factor in the spread and large scale fatality rate caused by many issues that could be prevented and or controlled in countries like my own. The Liberian society is largely susceptible to superstitions, with most of the things happening being attributed to negative supernatural sources. For example, when Ebola first struck in early 2014, it became widely rumored that it was some supernatural, unexplained invasion. Later on, with the rapid spread and high fatality rate, and owing to international interventions, health authorities in collaboration with international partners had to launch a rigorous sensitization campaign titled, “Ebola Is Real, and it Kills.” It will amaze one to know that there are still some communities in Liberia where Ebola is still believed to be a mysterious evil force.
The findings from my research have further inspired my vision of advocating for the welfare and empowerment of PWDs. My desire to educate people about this crippling disease, while also working with victims to shift the negative mindset about themselves, has been strengthened. While government and her partners including Rotary International are administering polio vaccines across the country as a result of a recent resurgence, it is also important that victims know the true source of their physically challenged conditions. This is important so that as PWDs begin to have kids of their own, those little ones will not suffer a similar fate.
Being a Rotary Peace Fellow has not only strengthened my work of seeking empowerment opportunities for PWDs(especially polio victims), but it has also helped me in further unmask the true evil, and dismiss the myth largely held by them. It is unfortunate that in the 21st century some Liberian people still attribute polio disease to a witch-craft attack on people. Much campaigning has been carried out, with millions of dollars spent towards vaccination and sensitization. However, much more needs to be done towards community engagement. Young mothers, mostly in rural communities (and unfortunately in some urban communities), usually do home deliveries and do not have the opportunity to vaccinate their new born. These children are mostly vulnerable to polio attacks some time in life, thus the recent resurgence of the disease, even though Liberia was declared polio free a few years ago.
As a member of Class 30, I feel hugely privileged as I interact with inspiring change-makers who are all aspiring to make our world a better place in their own ways. I am extremely grateful for Rotary’s fight to eliminate polio from the world. As a complementary effort to that huge task, my efforts will continue along the lines of working with victims through advocacy for society integration, empowerment, and education. This work makes me feel meaningful.
Klonnious Blamo – Liberia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More