TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION A Civilian Peacebuilding Initiative

Image from Shilo Shiv Suleman (Facebook Page)
It is a common thing to chance upon advocacy and lobbying initiatives that tell you what not to do: Don’t Rape. Don’t encourage violence. Don’t pollute. Don’t kill. As well founded and well meaning as these initiatives undoubtedly are, they fall short of accomplishing what they set out to, often, simply because of the negative tone of the underlying message. Rather than to negate, why not affirm a positive stance? Shilo Shiv Suleman’s work, thought process and approach to advocacy has followed this grain. Speaking to us about her work at The Fearless Collective, Shilo shares her thought on art and advocacy.

I am an artist, a storyteller and an illustrator. When I was around 12 or 13, when people would ask me to introduce myself, I would always say I was an artist – I was so sure of it. However, with time, the gradient differed. I worked as an illustrator for children’s books when I was 16, and then did a lot of set design, illustrations and worked with technology and different media, and now, I run the Fearless Collective. I think the three things that have stood out for me in this journey so far has been the magical realism, the fact that it is all about art and everything is an art form, and finally, that I keep away from conventional canvasses, and look at different places to take art out to.

I suppose the subliminal understanding that motivates the Fearless Collective has remained, having manifested in the form of different prototypes before it evolved in its current form. I was involved in causes for a long time – right from when I was 18, where I was in college and indulged in activism. I was part of this initiative called Artivism, which did graphic design on a pro bono basis for NGOs. I designed posters for the Pink Chaddi campaign, and it became the first viral online campaign in India. It was a simple poster I did in 15 minutes, and the next thing I know, there were thousands of shares, and Hindu fundamentalists were chasing me. It made me realise that something as simple as a poster can do a lot. In 2012, I was in Delhi for a friend’s wedding, when the gang rape happened. All of us went to India Gate to protest, and the surge of energy was inspiring. I wanted to be on top of things and contribute to the movement, like everyone else.

Image from Shilo's Fearless Collective

What I noticed at that time was the continued subtext of fear. There was constant fear-mongering, and fear was a part of rhetoric almost everywhere. Things like - get home safe, I’ll drop you, or stay for the night instead of heading back – they just drove home the truth that one couldn’t be out there, and be safe. India needs more people coming out, India needs more people venturing onto its streets. I created a poster as an affirmation to myself – reading “Not asking for it”. That’s how it began. It is a completely open access campaign, and people can download the posters and put it up anywhere in their cities.

It was then that I realised that the online element may work well – but one really does need to focus on public spaces. That paved the way for our current work – where we do participative storytelling in public places. We work with people in public spaces, take over with their stories, and tell them as beautiful, positive stories.

Image from Shilo's Fearless Collective 

We had an interesting collaboration in Okhla, Delhi, with Safecity and the Naz Foundation. It was a powerful campaign – Safecity maps areas in cities where people feel unsafe. They’d picked out this one road in Okhla – a particularly dark alleyway, which was perceived as unsafe. We painted the walls, with eyes all over it, and wrote in Hindi, what translated to mean “look at me with your heart, not with your eyes”. The idea was to take an affirmative response, rather than negativity. We had the local kids join us and paint the wall, as well. At first, people stared at us as we painted, and then slowly, when they came up and saw these eyes glaring gat them, they realised the significance of what we’d done. Now, girls feel safer. It was amazing to do this in collaboration with the people themselves – just putting a part of yourself in the form of a permanent mark out there in a public space can create a huge personal impact.

Currently, we’ve got a series of episodes on YouTube chronicling these experiences. We just shared one on our time in Dharavi. We had a day long workshop with the people there. We work with people in intervention using art therapy or theatre, and always do this as an interdisciplinary exercise. The idea was to look at personal boundaries and how we create it. We came up with affirmations together – we never paint walls without understanding the community we work with!

A lot of times, when we do this, we find ourselves with encouragement. But sometimes, people do come to pick fights – but even that is not something we feel defeated by, because these fights invariably pave the way for dialogue.

Read about the Fearless Collective here.
Indicative Image from Pixabay
The power of Education in changing the course of one's life cannot be underestimated: and if it is in the context of a country that has only known war, the value of education in carving out a path of peace is of immense value. For Shabnam Manati, receiving and imparting education is a route to gender equality, and to peace. Here is her story.

I am 20 years old. I come from a fairly big family. I live with four brothers, one sister, my mom, and my dad, my sister-in-law, niece and nephew. There are eleven members in our family. I love studying and being educated on the one hand, and helping girls and women in my land to become educated, on the other hand. I graduated from high school, recently, and I have successfully passed the entrance exam that would take me through the portals of the Kandahar University, where I am majoring in English Literature. I have studied English and Computer Science Courses at KIMS (The Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies), and I am still receiving business management studies online from SAIT (South Alberta Institute of Technology) in Canada.

I work as an English Instructor in KIMS and as a tester with Pax Populi. The most interesting thing I really like about Pax Populi is that it is a peace building program that connects people with each other from all over the world. I love and feel lucky that I am a part of Pax Populi. I love to work for peace, and I love making this world a peaceful place for its residents. Working for peace gives me a very different feeling - something that words are not enough to explain. I like to face all my challenges and I am not afraid of taking risks. I love taking risks, struggle with challenges and overcome them all, and I will do that in order to make my country enjoy the benefits of education and make this world a peaceful place. I won’t finish my education just with a major in English literature I will pursue a degree in Software Engineering and will be a good software engineer.

Education was always a dream for me. When I was a kid of say, 5 or 6, I had a pen and a notebook and was making curvy lines on the book. I was telling anyone who asked me what I was doing, that I was "writing English". I didn’t even know what English was! Was that something to eat? Or wear? Or Drink? And look at me now! I am majoring in English literature. I am an English teacher now!

Life in Afghanistan in the past 13 years left me filled with many memories that made us happy and sad, not only for me, but also for other women and girls like me. After the reign of the Taliban ended, I was 7 years old. That was the time when I had to go to school. Up until then, I didn't even know anything about these things called "pen", "book" or "notebook". I didn’t know what a school was, and what education really meant. For me, it was so strange to go to school. But, luckily, we went to school with the support of my father and mother. We started to get education. My parents always supported us in how to study, what to study and what we can do to be the best at our work. Finally, we learned everything we had to know. We were going to school then, so the situation wasn’t so bad. We were growing up and still continuing our education.

When I was in the fourth grade, my classmate who was also my best friend, said that she was going to leave school and stop studying. That was shocking for me. Leaving school? What was that? She said it was because her parents had told her that she had grown up and didn’t need to continue studying. That was very bad news for me! While going ahead in my education, I noticed that my friends that were all getting married at very early ages. They were stopping their education. Some dropped out at will, some left school under parental dictates, some got married and were forced to stop studying, some were abused and decided to stop coming to school, and some were forced to stop going to school because of the unreasonably narrow-minded thinking of people around them.

I was a lucky girl. There was no one to stop me from studying and realising my dreams. My father wasn’t like many other fathers. He was always supporting me, and encouraging me to stay motivated about studying.

A few bad memories that life left me with was the bad security situation in our country. Hearing about bombs and explosions that leave many dead and injured, and the rampancy with which these incidents occurred made us live in insecurity and fear. We suffered. But, life has changed so much. Our country has improved and we have converted from nothing to many things. Despite all the challenges we had, we have improved. This improvement gives me strength to work even more for my country. I will serve my country till my last breath, and till the last drop of my blood is drained.

Life today in Afghanistan and specially in cities like Kandahar, Helmand and many other conventional cities can be challenging for women and girls like me. We face many trials. The main problems are cultural - there is an undercurrent that discourages girls from getting education or work. The other problem is child marriage. Girls get married before they reach the right age for marriage and these early marriages don’t let girls get educated. It totally destroys their hopes for the future they want, as education becomes difficult to impossible. I work in the hope of seeing a day - or rather, I am dreaming of a day - when no girl or woman faces problems in my country. I am in the hope of a day when girls and women in my country live without violence. Girls in my country deserve education, peace and happiness. To that end, I want to work together to make our country a free place for girls and women to get educated and to pursue their dreams without being abused, or being told negative things that can make them stop what they are doing.

As everyone else does, yes, I also do face challenges while going to work or university. But, I don't care about the challenges that I face in a way that they affect me. If the issue was caring about these things and worrying about them, I will never be successful or reach my goals. I like to take risks and overcome challenges. The only way out is to struggle and overcome all problems. The journey of life is filled with ups and downs and these ups and downs are meant to make us strong. Facing challenges and problems while working and going to university makes me even stronger and gives power to my will. There is a proverb in Persian that it says “hear from one ear and throw it from another”. I do this to all the negative things that people say, and all the negative stuff I hear.
As a teacher, my dream and wish for my students and the women of my land is a peaceful and a life with the brightness of education. I wish their dreams come true. I wish they won’t get abused anymore and there won’t be any challenge for them while getting education and working and I wish to see their faces a wearing the smile of happiness and success.  

I hope to finish my higher education and work for people of my country, and for people all over the world. When I finish my education, I hope to spread my knowledge to all girls and women inside and outside of my country. I wish to be a role model in the world of education. I wish to be an inspiration for parents who stop their daughters from getting educated. I want them to look at me and the girls like me, and see how we have improved, evolved and grown through education. I want them to see how we can improve our country, and our society, and how we can light up the future of the upcoming generations. I want them to know that their daughters can also be like us if they educate them. Educate your girls if you want to live in peace. Yes, if you want yourselves and your coming generations to live in peace, educate your daughters. That is the only way to peace.

Katrell Christie
When Katrell Christie switched gears on her career choices, it wasn't in anyway something she anticipated. Starting out as a tourist to India, Katrell's chance encounter with a few girls in an orphanage carved a path that would take her to creating a movement to help girls build a future that would save them from violence. Here's her story.

Let's start by talking about Tiger Heart. What inspired it?
A: The name? Well one of the young Indian women in my program called me that because she said I was fierce, like a tiger, but also had a big heart filled with compassion and I do have a lot of yellow hair. The nickname just sort of stuck. Tigers have a lot of symbolism in India and they do live in West Bengal , where the Bengal tigers live.

You founded and run The Learning Tea. Tell us about the story behind it.
A: The Learning Tea began after I took a trip to India and met some amazing young women at an orphanage in Darjeeling. They were older teens and were going to be aged out of the orphanage when they turned 17. They had no place to go and it's hard to even imagine what their future might have held - manual labor, begging or possibly even sex trafficking. After spending time with them, I found I just couldn't walk away. I returned home to Atlanta and started raising money like crazy to help them continue their education. One thing led to another and The Learning Tea began. We now provide housing, tuition, food and books to a house full of young women in Darjeeling. One of our scholars has just moved on to graduate school, which is pretty remarkable for a lower-caste Indian.

From roller-derby-queen to tea-shop-owner, the transition must have been a challenge in its own right. What inspired it? What are some of your sacrifices on the way to make it happen?
A: You know, even when I was playing roller derby I was always very involved in the promotional and business side of things. I was actually better at that then I was at blocking! So, when a ice cream shop near my home announced they were shutting down I took a chance and dove in. If nothing else, Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party has become a place to store all the vintage tchotchke I've collected over the years. But we are also a community gathering place where folks come to meet, read,  talk, study or simply linger. We get a lot of first dates. We also host high teas for bridal showers and kids birthdays etc.

What made you choose India, and women's entrepreneurship / education in India?
A: It had everything to do with timing.  As I say in the book, I don't do yoga or study Buddhism. I knew next to nothing about the country when I first traveled there in 2009. A woman who was a regular at my tea shop was going there on a Rotary Club project focusing on women and entrepreneurship and she kept urging me to come along. I said no for months. And then one day, I suddenly said yes. I had just gone through a rough day, week, year…and for some reason that days she got me. As for education, that was something I realized in India, the one thing you could change that would have the trickle down effect. The one thing you could change that would change everything in its path and everything it touched. I thought to myself when I got to India and saw all the awesomeness that is India, what can I do? How can I make a difference? What skills do I have to offer these women to aid them on the path to success?  The obvious choice was education because education is freedom. Also my grandfather lived in South Georgia and really taught me the value of giving back. He didn't have a lot, but he funded a scholarship at the college where he taught. To him, education was the ladder up and that stuck with me. He always said, “no man is an island”.

As a person working in a completely different community with people of a different ethnic background, what challenges did you encounter?
Getting used to really mind-blowing spicy food and on a more serious note, building trust! There was a lot of suspicion from locals when I first started trying to launch my project in Darjeeling. I'm a blonde American woman and I would sometimes get the reaction of 'who does she think she is?" There was also some legitimate fear that I could be involved in sex trafficking or some other bad activity. I mean, that is what they've seen sometimes from foreigners coming in. Over time people learned what I was about and started to trust me, and help me. I now have a trusted group of people there who are my eyes and ears on the ground when I'm back in the U.S.

What inspired you and kept you going?
Seeing the success of the girls - as they ace their tests and thrive at things like sports and music - that's what keeps me going. All they needed was the opportunity. They didn't have a dad to lace up their skates, like I did.  This project also makes me happy. It gives me a lot of satisfaction. That's something I think some people don't realize, that you can get a lot of fulfillment in helping others. This project gives me back tenfold of what I put into it in happiness. 

What do you see as the future of your work? Is there a particular plan in place for what you're hoping to achieve?
Well, of course, I want all these young women to graduate and end up in careers that make them happy and self sufficient. I'd also like to open another center in India, maybe Kolkata. My first attempt to do that failed when the funding fell through. That was a really tough lesson for me. But I still think it can be done and the need is certainly there. I want any new centers to remain small though. I think the family feel that develops with a smaller group is extremely important, especially for some of these women who have had struggles with their own families.

Image from Melissa Silverstein
How often have you watched a movie, only to walk out disappointed about how the women in the film have been treated? How often have you angrily discussed the rampant objectification of women on the one hand, and the astute lack of substantive representation of women on the other hand, in films? And how many of us have done something about it? Melissa Silverstein chose to question it, and to spark off a dialogue to build towards a culture of change. Here is her story:

Could you start by telling us a little about the work that you do?
I live in New York City and I have been working in the entertainment business for about eight years now. Women and Hollywood now lives on indiewire. I use the platform to report issues on women and gender equality in the entertainment business, while also running advocacy programs, speaking engagements, projects, infographics and the like beyond the website.

What got you into the working on gender advocacy with respect to women in films?
I went to the movies a lot, and as I got older, I saw that movies began to speak to me lesser and lesser I wanted to understand why – and I saw lesser women and lesser women being portrayed with autonomy. I was concerned about it – and when I took it to the blogosphere, I realised that there was very little being spoken and written about women and films, and I threw in the hat to see how I could be part of this. With that, Women and Hollywood began as a blog in 2007, and continues to educate, advocate, and agitate for gender parity across the entertainment industry.  

What were some of the challenges you faced in the work that you do?
The challenge with putting content online is that as more and more content comes up, the older content begins to disappear. Things start getting lost, and come up only as a search engine result, that too if it is searched for appropriately. I realised that I had been talking to these women directors, and I noticed that the larger narrative in Hollywood and the entertainment business has been male. This has significantly made the voice of women obscure. We don’t hear women’s voices, and when we don’t hear women’s voices, we don’t hear women’s thoughts, or women’s perspectives, or women’s ideas. With all these interviews I had of women directors, I decided to self-publish a book, In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing. With work like this, the hugest challenge has been to monetise something like this – because putting content online, in a day and age where information is accessible and available for free, it is quite clear that it may not necessarily pay the bills.

Have you been able to trace any tangible impact or changes as a result of the work you've done?
It is hard to quantify change when you look at work like this, but I’ll say this much – after having created this blog, I find that more women are talking about it, and there is more dialogue now, where there was none. It is interesting to see that more actresses are talking about it now, when there was so much fear surrounding this before. There is a social justice angle to this, where there have been more efforts to demand equal pay for equal work, and fighting for rights. More men tend to gain prominence in the film and entertainment industry. The entertainment industry has centred significantly around money and prestige – and when these two elements enter the conversation, the prominence of the voice of women decreases. It is vital to have women’s stories, their narratives, their experiences and their voices validated in culture – and that cannot happen until you see and hear women. When you don’t hear women, see women, listen to their stories, don’t see them in the forefront or backstage, it is as good as women being invisible, as good as saying that women don’t count. This is not good – women hold up half the sky and it is high time we are heard!

What's happening next? 
Right now, I am looking at doing the second volume of the book, and I want to reach out to students on this work. When people see the numbers on this, they are overwhelmed and outraged. I want more people to vote with their dollars when they go to the movies. 

Read the Women and Hollywood blog here.

Image from here
Lighting up lives begins with a simple intention: a desire to do something, a desire to make the lives of those around you better, brighter and happier. For Mark D’Souza, this began with his own story of empathy and love for his parents. Spreading joy in the lives of five aged people to start with, Mark is on a journey to brighten more lives in Mumbai. Here’s his story, in his own words.

Professionally, I am a broker. I work with properties and also work with providing manpower in the form of security guards, ward boys, caretakers and the like. I run a charitable trust, an old age home called the Crystal Light Home. It houses just five aged ladies right now, and my family and I take care of them right now. My family – i.e., my wife, son, daughter and son-in-law support me.

For me, it all started with the loss of my parents. I was only five or six when my mother passed away. My father passed away when he was 90. The loss of one’s parents is a painful one – and only a person who has lost his parents can and will understand what it feels like. My journey with Crystal Light Home began with an outright purchase of the property. I went to the bank with my wife, and we had a conversation with the manager, telling him that we wanted to open an old age home, and asked if he could sanction a loan. Within a few minutes, he called the chairman, and the chairman immediately sanctioned the loan and approved its grant for us – that is the beauty of it all. It was only after that that he asked us for the paperwork – it was just amazing to see how helpful people were! Now, we have considered expanding beyond the five ladies, and to take on more people – a friend of ours has told us that there is some property at his disposal which he is willing to sell, and we are in the process of talking to the bank.

Only recently, a man of about 70 came to me, with a pitiable story. He lost his wife, and in the time that she was alive, she advised him to write off all their property in the names of both their daughters, which he did. Now, he has no money of his own, and is barely allowed into his own property which his daughters take care of. They are, in effect, really just waiting for him to die so that they can divide the property and enjoy the money from it. Half of my office space is given to a franchise holder of Professional Couriers. I asked the manager there if he could give this 70-year-old gentleman a job where he could take home some money to feed himself. We are working on something for him. It is things like these that really make me want to keep going. I have personally been through many hardships in life, and I know what it feels like to be in a place where you are suffering. My only thought has been to do something for others, and to empower them. Old age is a difficult phase, and only one who has gone through it can truly understand what it feels like.

I also run a free tiffin service in Borivali, and give tiffin to about 40 people a day. It is for elderly people who live alone and cannot cook. I serve vegetarian food on weekdays and non-vegetarian food on the weekends. I am very clear about giving them the best food. No mixing up the old and the new, or stale and fresh food. I tell my maid to do her part, too, and not to neglect this – because God is watching. The food is cooked with minimal salt and spices so it can be digested. We make chappatis, rice, dal, some vegetables - all with a dollop of love! I pack sweets and ice creams sometimes, and on Sundays, we make sure to add fish or chicken. We try not to repeat recipes so that they don't feel like they're eating the same thing again and again.

Image from here

We also hope to do something for people in the last stage of cancer. We want to bring them to a space where they will be comfortable, cared for and protected. It is challenging, but we hope to do this.

People have been positive throughout. Sometimes, people approach me saying they have a birthday to celebrate, and ask me to make something or give the people in my care something in honour of their celebration. Recently, someone gave me Rs. 200 and said he wanted to celebrate his birthday – and I bought apples for everyone and gave them one each. On someone else’s birthday, we made some homemade cake and gave them to everyone. There has also been criticism – people have said that I am doing this for property – what would I do with property? I am 58 – how much longer do I have? I came with nothing, I am going with nothing. What will I do with property? The name Mark D’Souza is nothing to all this – it is just about caring for people. Like the Bible says, what the right hand does, the left hand must not know. I am only a messenger!
Recently, I met Amitabh Bachchan, the Hindi film actor. He told me, “All of us have the money and the resources to do such things – but the difference is that you have the courage to do it!”

Nargis Ehsan | Addressing a gathering on International
Women's Day
Nargis Ehsan is a 17 year-old girl who has dedicated her life to the education of women and girls in Afghanistan. She has been involved in connecting students in Kandahar with teachers from different parts of the world through the internet. She has been working to become an example and an inspiration for the girls in Afghanistan so that they can also work towards achieving their dreams. Ji Soo Ahn, one of our volunteers, sat down with her to discuss her work with KIMS, AIWR and Pax Populi, and their hopes and challenges in the rapidly changing political atmosphere of Afghanistan.

Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I am 17. I live with my two sisters, two brothers, my mum and my dad. There are seven people in my family. I have dedicated my life to the cause of education, and helping women in Kandahar towards becoming educated. I graduated from my high school this year. I successfully made my way through a scholarship to the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. I will be studying Bachelor in Business Administration (BBA) there. I also finished English and Computer skills at Kandahar Institute of Modern studies (KIMS from here). But I am still studying Business Management studies online from SAIT Polytechnic in Canada. I have worked as English instructor at KIMS and as a coordinator for Alliance for International Women’s Rights (AIWR from here) and Pax Populi. The one of the most interesting things about AIW and Pax populi is getting to know the people from different cultures, which is my hobby. I really love meeting new people from all around the world. I can say that I am a risk-taking girl. I love taking risks. In the conservative area like Kandahar, you have to take risks in order to get education.

You are very passionate about the education. Who and/or what inspired you towards this path?
My dad is the director of KIMS. He has been working for educating Afghan women in Kandahar since 2002. But he was also working for education even when we were in Pakistan; he had an institute and was educating the girls there. He has been working for educating women for a long time and he is still training more than 1500 women at KIMS. He is my biggest inspiration towards getting 'addicted' to education.
Also it is hard for women to get education in Kandahar and in Afghanistan in general.  After watching most of families not letting their girls get education and these women’s situation, their lives motivated me towards the education because I have this chance so I have to use it. I want to be an example and an inspiration for those other families who do not let their daughters get education. I want to be an inspiration so that their parents can watch me and other many girls who are getting education, so that they can watch us and they also let their daughters let their dreams come true.

You work as a coordinator for both AIWR and Pax Populi. Could you tell us a little bit about each organisation and your work there?
AIWR’s mission is to support women leaders and future women leaders in developing countries, with their current focus on Afghanistan. The important aspect of AIW is that creating the relationships between people of different cultures can help improve international understanding. I work as a coordinator for AIWR , introducing young Kandahari women to the teachers online from around the world. I help them arrange their classes, exchange the emails, organise their times and days and prepare for the classes. We have, since I have been working with AIWR, trained more than hundreds of Kandahari women, with the help of foreign volunteers.  Now they are working in the organisations.
At Pax Populi, its mission is to build peace through education. They have classes from foreigners. They teach the students. We are building peace through education and through these online classes. At Pax Populi I have the same duties; I connect the foreigner teachers with students here online.

You are still a student yourself. And you have worked with many women to get their education. What are the challenges that women face when they get education?
There are many reasons that stop Afghan women from getting their education. These challenges are based on how conservative most of the provinces are. For example, you will see fewer problems in Kabul, which is the capital of Afghanistan than in other conservative areas such as Kandahar, Helmand and many others. But the common challenges that these women face is the cultural problems, that people create.
People create and reinforce a mindset that discourages women from seeking education, a mindset which has no real basis in the Islamic books. And the other problem is the early marriages; most of the girls get married before they get the education or before finishing their education. Most common problem, I can tell you, is that girls get abused by the thugs on the streets. While they are on their way to schools, they listen to so many bad words, which mentally kill them. The thugs on the streets warned them and threaten them because they are getting education and they are women. These are the common problems that girls face. You have to abide by all these conditions, which I have done. Even I have gone through so many, even still now when going to the university, I listen to so many bad words. And what I do is that I just put on my headphones in the ears, play a song and walk like a boss. That is how you can become successful in Afghanistan. If you listen to people, you will kill yourself. You will have to kill yourself if you listen to these people and what they think about you. Because in their minds, women are nothing. That is terrible.

How do girls cope in this situation? Was there any girl who gave up their education to avoid this?
I know a girl. I don't know her abusers but they threw acid in her face, while she was coming to the institute. They threw acid in her face, because she was getting education and her face was all burnt. No one could think that she would survive. But as soon as she recovered I saw her again at the institute, still getting education. People have now learned that giving up is not the solution. They have learned how to be confident when facing these problems.
How did KIMS affect your life? What about the communities?
If I didn't study at KIMS, I wouldn't be able to make my way to the American university of Afghanistan. It is the same for so many other girls. We have so many students in Kabul; they made our way to the university. Of course it change my life. It made me capable. The studies at the institute made me capable of how to communicate with the online teachers from around the world, who help the students here to fulfil their important aspect of their life. Also it helped me with my business management studies. It really helped me choose my future. One of the most difficult decisions I needed to make is what I will study in the future. My business studies made me entrust in studying Bachelor in Business Administration (BBA) that is what I am going to do. Overall it helped me become who I am today. I also became a big inspiration for many girls at the institute. The girls who get education at KIMS, they are the biggest inspiration to the families so that they can also let their daughters to get education. I started university and I am still working for the institute from Kabul. When I left I asked a friend who belongs to the conservative family if she can do my job now that I am leaving. She talked with her family and her family said that seeing me working as a coordinator and interacting with people from all around the world was inspiration so you can also be, you can definitely go and work. It was really great to hear that.

There is news about the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and how it might affect the funding for the school. Could you describe the current situation of KIMS due to this?
The US was great help to Afghanistan and to the people of Afghanistan. But unfortunately, when they invested money in the past, about 80% of the aid money was wasted. Most organisations and individuals who took on the projects; they wasted this aide money on lavish salaries, luxury cars, and properties. KIMS and the organisations like KIMS were starved of funding. I think the withdrawal of the US troops is affecting my work as a teacher at KIMS already. As the money started to decrease, our institute suffered. The classes were dismissed due to no funding. It is just a matter of time before our institute closes its doors, which will lead to the unemployment of 100s staff members of KIMS including me.
I can say more than 1500 students will be left out of their studies due to no funding. That is too much. I can tell that Afghanistan still needs the help of US and international communities to support us. You know KIMS is and was a hope for 1000s of women. It still is a hope for 1000s of women at Kandahar where they could see their dreams come true and where they thought that they have future. So if there is no funding or no support from US, I am sure all these hopes and dreams, they would die. I can say overall Afghanistan still will be in situation from the past when women were sitting beside the closed doors at their homes because institute has no funding. This is the problem that will occur, which has already occurred.

What is your next move?
After I do my BBA, I really love education. I want to study many fields. I would like to continue my studies to master and PhD. But beside that, I would love to assume a leadership position and would love to have a big role in making this country a beautiful place. I want to raise the economy of Afghanistan through my business study. I want to improve Afghanistan; I want to have a good relationship with the world through economy.

Image (c) Robert Markey

Robert Markey’s first act of defiance was in school in 1965 when in his graduation speech he advocated the use of civil disobedience to bring about change. Today, Robert is an artist whose work focuses on questions of conflict, violence, protests, peace and human rights. Having witnessed the civil rights movement in America as a child, having participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War while in college, Robert has worked with well-known names including Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. He is a versatile artist with exposure to living and working with spiritual communities, playing the sitar and engaging with children in conflict zones. Nidhi Shendurnikar met Robert last year in Nepal as part of the CONTACT South Asia programme organized by The SIT Graduate Institute. There he mentored South Asians participants to explore their artistic skills to further peace in the region. Here, he talks about his involvement with peace work, particularly his use of art to help end violence.

You have experimented with various art forms like paintings, mosaics, sculpture and theatre. What motivates you to invest in art as a tool for peace advocacy?
This is a difficult question, I have been working for peace in various ways ever since I was a teenager and there is still so much war, violence and brutality. Artists and musicians have worked in so many ways to stop governments from starting wars, but it has never worked. The main thing art can do is raise awareness and help people understand the violence present in different situations. Many people are totally unaware of the amount of domestic violence that exists or the dangers of child trafficking. What they often ask is, “what can I do to stop this?”
Even when people know about something, seeing a work of art can make them take it in, understand it, feel it in their hearts. If this can happen then they will do more to end it. In my art work, this is what I try to do.

I am sure using art to talk of peace is a challenge. How have you, in your creations, dealt with peace?
Actually peace has often been an inspiration for my work. When I become aware of something violent that has happened, I use that to create a work of art. Sometimes this work just represents my anger at the people who inflicted this violence and sometimes it is more of a push to get people to understand it and work to end it.
Some of my political paintings were inspired by real life incidences of violence. For example, I painted ‘Collateral Damage’ after the missiles sent to kill Saddam Hussein went off target and killed a wonderful Iraqi artist and her family. Another one titled ‘Grieving Mother’ was inspired by a newspaper photo of a Vietnamese woman crying. I wanted to convey the personal horrors that war brought. ‘Trail of Tears’ depicted the brutal killings of Native Americans back in the 1830s. I also did an exhibition on 9/11 which depicted the history of US terrorism in the world. Other than these individual pieces of art, my extended installations have been inspired by meeting children who were trafficked. ‘Superbowl Scoreboard’ and ‘Witness to Violence’ were inspired by the need to stop violence against women here in the USA.

While not everyone may understand a piece of art, yet a subtle connection is possible in some way
Collateral Damage
or the other. Is it easy to use art to communicate peace, because both art and peace represent simple things of life?
This is an interesting question. I don't know if you have had a chance to start reading the book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, but it is basically about this. Fighting, power and logic are all left brain focused. Art, music, creativity and caring for the community are right brain focused. So seeing art, hearing music creates a more peaceful society. Historically when the most brutal governments take over, they destroy art, censor and kill artists and musicians.
There are a lot of ways to work for peace. In working for peace, much of the work is trying to stop violence. Much of my earlier work focused on showing the impact of violence. But also in working for peace we need to show people the beauty of peace. In my very recent installation, ‘See the Beauty, End the Violence’, the attempt is to show the beauty of peace. I don't think it is easy to spread peace with art, I think it is one of the many very good ways to create peace.

I want to learn about your experience of working in conflict zones around the world, using art to heal wounds.
My first experience in a conflict zone was in Nicaragua during the Contra war in 1986 where I worked with Witness for Peace to document the horrors of war there. I then spent time in Guatemala (1988), worked in an orphanage for indigenous children, many of whose parents were killed by US supported and trained death squads. I set up a carpentry school for the older boys and played with the younger kids. I didn’t do much art, only experienced conflict from an outsider’s perspective. It was in 2003 that I started working on mosaic mural projects with kids in Brazil. It was not a conflict zone, but the kids I worked with had difficult lives. Since then I have worked with street kids in Cambodia, orphans and handicapped boys in Sri Lanka, street kids and a gypsy community in India and a Palestinian girl’s high school in Israel.
When I do such projects, I don't think a lot about the conflict or healing wounds, I just do art with the kids and see that they love doing it. The theme of the art is never about the conflict; it is usually about fun things like animals, dancers, flowers or whatever they want to create. Children especially take a liking to working with mosaics because they have led difficult lives, which leave them with a feeling that something damaged/broken can never heal. The art of mosaic lets them express their inner feelings, creativity and shows them that it is possible to heal even broken pieces.

Can art become a bit disturbing when it tries to communicate peace?
Yes, much art is disturbing, which is often the point - to force people to see the horrors, the brutality that is happening. It is one thing to read about something that happened and it is easy to skim over it and not take it in. To see it as a large painting, photograph, sculpture, film is much more difficult to ignore, so these things can move people in ways that nothing else can.

Grieving Mother
What challenges have you faced as an artist and as a human being to spread the message of peace through art?
One major challenge has been to understand and research the subject that I work on. For instance, while creating a piece of art on trafficking and slavery, I read a lot on the horrors that child victims underwent. It was brutal, and after a couple of months I had to stop reading any more. The other challenge is often the response. I have had my work censored and threatened, especially when it involved challenging the government. It is also very difficult to find a place to show work that is political. During the Contra war in Nicaragua, the city where I was showing a piece about the war, threatened to forcibly remove it. They backed out when I threatened to sue them and their lawyer agreed with my right to do so. After 9/11, it was almost impossible to show any political piece.

Any particular art work or artist who has inspired you?
Kathe Kollwitz, is one of my biggest inspirations. And Picasso's ‘Guernica’, which I used to go see in New York as a kid before it went back to Spain when the dictatorship ended. Picaso did very little political work, but the Guernica is extraordinary. And Francisco de Goya is also an inspiration.

Art is multi-faceted. Is it okay to expect artists to consciously strive for peace through their work? Or rather, let peace flow naturally from an artistic creation?
Artists can contribute to the world in many ways and striving for peace is one of these ways. I think artists who are not political in their work often become so when they see or come in contact with an issue that moves them to face it and work to stop it.
I do a lot of street art that is seen by thousands of people every day and hopefully make their day a little happier. Is a happier world the same as a more peaceful world? I don't know, but I believe that there are two ways to help a person who is suffering. One is to decrease their suffering and the other is to increase their joy. As an artist, I think I can increase people's joy, so hopefully I am helping to alleviate their suffering a little.

The world needs more beauty. The world needs more peace. Both are so important and connected.
Stronger Tomorrow, through its lyrics, establishes the fact that women are the makers of their own future, and the process begins with girls. The underlying message of the song for girls world over is that the world is theirs, and no one can take it away from them. Rendered from the perspective of Life, the song is a powerful assertion through art advocacy that women and girls, who hold up half the sky, have a rightful place under the sun, and that this is the foundation of a stronger future built on gender equality.

The song implores girls to break out of the shackles that bind them with assertiveness. Encouraging girls to speak up, speak out and speak against in their own way, the song alludes to the beautiful message of peace encapsulated by Mahatma Gandhi: In a gentle way, shake the world. It suggests a beautiful undercurrent of strength and inner power.

Lyrics: Ashay Abbhi
Composition, Vocals and Programming: Gilli (Nrithya Maria Andrews, Vivin Kuruvilla and Vinay Ramakrishnan)
Produced by: The Red Elephant Foundation

----Lyrics ----
Lift that hand a little higher,
move your legs a little faster,
talk when you talk a little softer,
don’t be happy girl be happier
And you stay through the dark, get a hold of the light
if you look hard enough, it will be bright
it could be happiness, it could be sorrow,
there’ll always be my arms for you to borrow,
to hold you through today to a stronger tomorrow,
to a stronger tomorrow,
to a stronger tomorrow
Lift that chin a little higher,
smile a little wider,
why don’t you sing a little louder,
why! why!
And you stay through the dark, get a hold of the light
if you look hard enough it will be bright
it could be happiness, it could be sorrow,
there’ll always be my arms for you to borrow,
to hold you through today to a stronger tomorrow,
to a stronger tomorrow,
to a stronger tomorrow
Dream tonight about the ‘morrow you want,
dream with your eyes open to have no want,
work a little more tonight, make your own way
just walk with me, walk with me into the day
And you stay through the dark, get a hold of the light
if you look hard enough it will be bright
it could be happiness, it could be sorrow,
there’ll always be my arms for you to borrow,
to hold you through today to a stronger tomorrow,
to a stronger tomorrow

Little girls from all over the world share their thoughts on what 'being a girl' means to each of them, and what they take pride about themselves for.

Image: Razia Jan (c)
In a little village outside of Kabul, a bunch of girls are gregarious and happy, walking along, chattering as they go to school. A lovely, pleasant lady welcomes them at her doorstep, ushering them into the school for their classes. She stands tall, as the lady who effected change in a nation torn by war. She stands as the ray of hope that she saw, in the future of the nation. The lady is Razia Jan, the founder of the Zabuli Education Centre and her allied initiative, Razia’s Ray of Hope. A CNN Hero, Razia shares her story.

I am a native Afghan, and lived in Afghanistan until the 1970s. I went to the US in the 1970s for my education. I couldn’t go back to Afghanistan, though, because of the Soviet invasion and the civil war, then the Taliban, and 9/11.  After 9/11, I rallied in my adopted New England Community to send over 400 homemade blankets to the rescue workers at Ground Zero, and slowly, to send care packages to the US troops in Afghanistan. I was involved in the military’s Operation Shoe Fly, coordinating the delivery of over 30,000 pairs of shoes for needy Afghan children. The US started bombing  Afghanistan right away, and I would spend time watching and listening to the news, thinking of how many innocent people – especially women and girls, were being affected by this.

I went back in January 2002, and visited a few orphanages with some gifts for the children. I made it a point to gift both, girls and boys with toys. I noticed, though, that when I gave a boy a toy, and gave a girl a doll or a toy, they would take their gifts and walk away – and a short distance later, I’d notice the boy snatching away the toy from the girl. She couldn’t do, or say a thing in response. I felt bad for the girls, and decided that I would start working to protect them, and give them the route to the self-respect and understanding they needed to stand for themselves.

I served as the president of the Rotary Club in Duxbury, Massachusetts, for over 20 years. I served as
Winning the CNN Heroes Award
the President of my club in 2007. My Club raised the funds to build a girls school in 2008, when I arranged for money from Massachusetts to build a school in an area in Afghanistan that had never had a school. I made it a point to search for a safe area, where the school won’t be destroyed and where the students won’t be mistreated for attending the school.

It took me time to persuade the community. There were about seven villages, and it is outside Kabul – I won’t name the villages out of concern for the security situation there. There were about 101 girls in 2008, from the Lower Kindergarten to Grade 4. Now, we’ve grown to a powerful strength of 491 girls, and the first class graduates this fall. The community refuses to let them go outside to study further, and so these girls got together and asked me for help. I am now building a midwifery institute next door to the school. A lot of women who studied with me, and from other places and are now sitting at home after marriage, or are forced to sit at home and not leave outside for their higher studies are eager to be part of this institute. I have about 57 girls who are going to join the institute. It is a great opportunity for them. I’m happy to say that the school has been privately run entirely, and I have had absolutely no government funding or dependency on the government. It has been a non-profit always.

When I started the school, after beginning the construction of a building, I needed money to complete furnishing it. An Afghan doctor in Massachusetts told me that the wife of the late Abdul Majid Zabuli – the man who pioneered economics and banking in Afghanistan only to be uprooted by the Soviet invasion – ran her foundation. She was a German lady, and said that she wanted me to name the school after her husband, who had done so much for Afghanistan, but had never been given the recognition he deserved. That was how it came to be known as Zabuli Education Centre.

I have many stories to tell, of my girls. But I’ll go with one that is closest to my heart. The oldest student of our school is about 23 now. Last year, her father wanted to remarry – he already has seven kids. His arrangement was with a girl in another part of Afghanistan. She was sixteen. He had given his word that he would give his daughter's hand in marriage to the 70 year old father of the 16 year old that he was about to marry. His daughter refused, fought tooth and nail – and was beaten, burned, her ribs were broken, she was brutally injured – but she stoutly refused. Six months passed this way, and eventually, her father resigned to her demand. But since he had given his word that he would marry the 16 year old, he could not go back on his word. He went ahead and married the girl, paying $20,000 as a bride price. She had a son, recently.

In Afghanistan, as is perhaps true in India and other countries, girls are married off while they are still young. Families live on the money they get, and so they bear many girls so that they can get a bride price for each of their daughters to get by. I encountered this as a bit of a resistance, as I had to negotiate with families to make them see sense in educating their girls. I began to tell their fathers the benefits of having an educated daughter at home. A man who was illiterate would have to go to ten different places just to have a notification he received, read out to him. An educated daughter in that setting would help ease out a lot. Many families saw sense in it, and it was a unique opportunity for their girls, indeed. Some of the girls are engaged to be married though still young, but they do continue to study. There are times when I try to persuade families to educate their girls, but I fail. When I fail, I realise I have to deal with it – because there is only so much I can invest in a family affair. I try my best.

I’m happy to note that my school is a safe place for the girls to come to, every day. There are seven villages, and my school is in a central location that allows girls from all the villages to come to study. We have a good support system in the village in that they act as vigilant guards for our school – so much so that they stop outsiders and strangers, question and verify credentials and then let people in only if they can be sure of their credentials. We keep checking the premises everyday for gas before we let the girls in, and we also check the well that supplies water to the school, to ensure that there is no poison.

Earlier, the girls used to walk about 4 or 5 miles to reach the school – and it was difficult, because the older girls would be teased and misbehaved with. Now, we have a bus that brings and drops the girls off. We do our best, and give our girls the best we can. Our school is the number one school for girls in Afghanistan. We have computers, and an internet connection, and we teach the girls English, for an hour, each day. It is a part of the curriculum. We have 19 teachers right now, one administrative head, one headmistress, a gentleman who oversees certain elements of the administrative process, three guards and two drivers, all of whom are on payroll. The teachers are very devoted, and travel from the school and to Kabul, spending 1.5 hours on the travel.

We have a program where we welcome people to sponsor a girl’s education. It costs $300 each year to educate one girl. We welcome people to sponsor students – one, two, as many as they can. The cost of education includes books, uniforms, stationery and transportation. The sponsor receives a letter and a picture from the child, and over 200 children have been sponsored as part of the program. 

To support the program, head over to
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