Thursday, October 18, 2007

Say No to discrimination

Two Kochi girls attend a camp in Kathmandu and realise that life is difficult for girls in Asian countries

By Shevlin Sebastian

"We got along famously with the Pakistani girl, Shamin Nisar," said Ann Joseph, who is studying in Class 10 in Choice School. Her friend, Riji Cherian, of Greets Public School, nodded in agreement. "We had so much fun, and we were thinking that actually our countries are supposed to be fighting with each other. It was then we realised that at the human level, we are all the same, whether Indian or Pakistani."

Ann and Riji have just returned from Kathmandu where they participated in the 4th Asian Girl Child Peace Camp. Around 42 girls, in the age group of 14 to 17, from countries like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar and India, took part.

"The aim of the camp was to nurture a culture of non-violence and peace," said Riji. Other objectives included the development of mediation skills, sharing the wealth of one's culture and establishing peaceful relationships among the girls in Asia.

For the two Kochi girls, the camp was an eye-opener. "I understood how different the culture, language and religion of the other girls were, but all of us faced the same problem of discrimination," said Ann.

Both were touched by the case of Mala Hla Than, a girl from Myanmar, who had to stop studying because of financial hardship. But the family ensured that her brother continued to study. "In Asian countries, girls suffer from discrimination," said Ann. "The male always gets the preference. We have to become assertive and strong and say no to discrimination."

They were struck by the lack of freedom for Shamin. "She cannot walk out of her house in Karachi on her own," said Riji. "She has to always be accompanied by her parents. If Shamin wore a kurti or trousers, men would pass crude remarks. So, she had to wear the purdah when she went out. She told us she feels as if she is in a prison."

Ann said that when Shamin was in the camp, she was very happy because she could wear what she wanted and nobody passed any remarks. "We were stunned by her situation," said Ann. "I am glad I belong to a free country like India."

The most exciting moment for Ann and Riji occurred, when, during the cultural programme, they danced to Barso Re, the hit song from Mani Ratnam's Guru and the audience went berserk. "It was then that we understood the powerful impact of Bollywood," said Riji. "In fact, our Bangladeshi friends told us the latest, hot, celebrity gossip. They knew more about Bollywood than us."

For the two fifteen-year-olds, who had travelled alone for the first time, it was a life-altering experience. And for that, they had to thank the Kochi-based NGO, the Cultural Academy of Peace. The Academy is the women's wing of the Indian Fellowship Of Reconciliation, which is part of the Netherlands-based International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). According to its web site, IFOR has branches in 43 countries. The camp in Kathmandu was organised by the Nepal chapter of IFOR, the Bikalpa Gyan Tatha Bikas Kendra.

"The younger members are our future hope and we want to empower them to promote the culture of non-violence and peace,” said Chairperson Beena Sebastian of the Cultural Academy. “This has become all the more urgent since the United Nations has declared October 2 as the day of non-violence."

Beena said that, after a screening process, Ann and Riji were selected because they "are energetic and capable and will be able to disseminate what they have learned in the camp".

It seemed to be a wise selection. Said Susan Rai, the facilitator at the camp in Kathmandu: “Ann and Riji were one of the best participants. They were disciplined, always on time, and eager to take part in all the programmes. It is not that they learnt from us, but we learnt from them.”

The plan now, according to the Cultural Academy, is to set up peace clubs in different schools in Kerala, with the two girls as the standard-bearers. Even though peace has eluded mankind for centuries, and cynicism abounds worldwide, it is still an ideal to strive for.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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