In Pakistan, as in many parts of the world, women and girls play a critical role in preventing the spread of extremist ideologies and keeping peace within their communities. Increasingly, they are also at risk of being recruited by extremist groups.
Since early 2020, UN Women has been supporting a social cohesion programme in Sindh province, with support from the European Union. The programme is implemented by PAIMAN, a non-profit organization that trains Pakistani women and youth to address divisive narratives and reduce their vulnerability to violent extremism, while helping them become change-agents.
“I believe women’s voices are the communities’ voices,” says Mossarat Qadeem, the co-founder of PAIMAN. “If they’re given the right opportunities, women can consistently bridge divides, build understanding within communities, promote dialogue and build trust. Whether they are preventing violent extremism, contributing to interfaith harmony or responding to emergencies like COVID-19, women tend to adopt an inclusive approach. That’s why at PAIMAN, we always push for integrating their views and leadership when developing strategies to address violent extremism.”
In 2020, Qadeem was among the participants in the UN Women-convened online consultation, “Voices and perspectives of civil society on the gendered dimensions of violent extremism and counterterrorism responses.”
While supporting women’s inclusion and participation in promoting social cohesion, PAIMAN is also working to eradicate the barriers that keep women away from the public and political sphere.
“We must tackle existing prejudices at the social and cultural level, which want women relegated to private spaces and away from public life,” says Qadeem. “Only by doing this can we empower women to become leaders and change-makers. We must be given the opportunity to participate in peace processes, as well as in national and international forums, as experts – only then will the purpose of UNSCR 1325 be fully realized.”
In 2020, PAIMAN initiated a collaboration with visual artists from Karachi, Shamim Awan, Amina Bano and Hira Sultan, to foster social cohesion and women’s leadership through art under the UN Women programme. The artists came together to create colourful murals on the walls of the Karachi Cantonment railway station. Their art work depicted that a more tolerant, peaceful society is possible and that women’s empowerment is a powerful tool to prevent violent extremism.
Awan says: “Women’s access to public spaces in Pakistan is limited, and women’s participation in creating public art even more so. That’s why our proposition to do art on the walls of the Karachi station was received with some perplexity. Still, we believe that in conflict-affected societies art provides an avenue for marginalized groups to voice their opinions and bring about change.”
The choice of the venue was also intentional. “A railway station is a perfect example of a microcosm of society,” says Bano. “Every day, people from different backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities pass through it. By creating wall paintings that promote peace and cohesion, we hoped to establish a connection with the travellers and initiate a discourse around conflict and tolerance.”
The finished artwork is a powerful reminder that Pakistani women are critical allies and leaders to foster cohesion and prevent violent extremism. Several government institutions have since reached out to PAIMAN for similar collaborations.
"It has been very encouraging to see women taking ownership through this programme and pave the way to build social cohesion and trust within communities in some of the most sensitive areas of Pakistan,” says Fareeha Ummar, Portfolio Manager at UN Women Pakistan. “We were able to build and connect a strong community of women who challenged social norms and demonstrated that their voices and experiences are crucial in sustaining peace."
These efforts have been made under the programme, Preventing Violent Extremism: Integrating Gender Perspectives, run by UN Women in partnership with the European Union. Launched in February 2019, the programme is being implemented at the global level and piloted in Pakistan and Jordan. It has engaged more than 9,700 beneficiaries in the areas of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.