A ONE-DAY CONFERENCE ON SELF-DETERMINATION AND THE EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN: CHANGING THE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ORDER OF KASHMIR
The relationship between the empowerment of women in social and political terms and the role of women in the struggle for self-determination in Kashmir raises a number of fundamental questions. This year’s Women’s Conference is a one-day event. In consequence, there will not be time to explore fully every aspect of this relationship. However, within the limitation of the time available, the aim of the Conference is to examine the barriers to Women’s empowerment, to propose measures to overcome some of the more significant of these barriers and to assess the potential impact on the struggle for self-determination of an enhanced status for women. The intended outcome is for the Conference to identify a series of actions designed to promote a more dynamic social role for women in Kashmir and which can be supported through the increased involvement of the international community.
In order to achieve these goals, we have drawn up a programme which encourages the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas and which allows different perceptions of the problems of empowerment to be compared and contrasted. Such an environment will permit a wide range of possible solutions to be shared, debated and analysed by participants who hold quite different views regarding the measures needed to address the issue of women’s empowerment. The basic criterion against which the success of the Conference will be measured is whether participants have felt able to engage actively in the debate and if, by the time the closing session has been reached, they find that, as a result of this engagement, their position on one or other important issue has changed!
If this goal is to be achieved during a one-day Conference it must be on the basis of an appropriate framework for the discussion within which all participants feel that they are on an equal footing in that everyone has a voice and everyone has the right to speak.
The right to speak is not something that can be taken for granted in events of this kind. Even where such a right has been explicitly stated by the Conference organisers and incorporated into the Conference structure the audience may well be reluctant to be seen to challenge the depth of knowledge displayed by the external experts who have been mobilised to deliver the keynote address or to make some other formal presentation. Thus potentially useful ideas may be suppressed using the mechanism of ‘self censorship’.
Clearly, there are different kinds as well as different levels of expertise. Many Conferences tend to assume that the most relevant and up-to-date expertise in any particular area is to be found in the skills of a small group of high-level researchers, academics, and politicians who specialise in that area and who have a virtual monopoly of publications in the field. Such an assumption devalues the understanding and experience gained by those who have been directly engaged as actors in a particular situation. This present Conference seeks to recognise the actual experiences of those individuals who either have been or who are currently involved in some aspect of the struggle for self-determination and to draw on these experiences as a primary resource for analysis.
For the morning session of the Conference, we have, therefore, adopted a round table format by choosing half a dozen ‘themes’ which are central to the debate on female empowerment. For each theme, we have invited a selected participant and asked her/him to make a brief ten minute presentation on the chosen theme! Comments and questions will then be invited from the audience.
For the afternoon session, we have taken the process one’s stage further and have invited participants to join one of two working groups. Discussion groups of up to 20 members are a valuable way of generating fresh ideas and of defining a critique of the status quo. They are able to do this firstly, because the group members bring to the discussion a range of different points of view all of which can be examined in detail and, secondly, because it encourages group members to think ‘outside the box’ and to come up with original and innovative solutions.
Dividing the Conference after lunch into working groups will allow participants to examine some of the challenges facing Kashmiri women on a day-to-day basis in much greater depth than is possible in a plenary session. Participants will select the group to which they wish to be assigned.
The group process is intended to be democratic. Thus group members themselves decide how they want to tackle their assignment and how the available resources should be allocated. The facilitator is present to provide guidance and to assist in resolving any difficulties but will not seek to influence the way decisions are taken nor to steer the group in any particular direction.
The facilitator will, however, endeavour to ensure that the group takes full advantage of the scope for frank and open discussion offered by the format and will encourage the presentation and analysis of alternative points of view on the part of group members. In principle, the discussion in the group should be open and un-constrained. Participants are to be encouraged to address their remarks to each other and not to the group facilitator. In the same vein, the group facilitator will rely on other members of the group to express support or criticism of any particular idea rather than associating herself with any particular point of view.
The outcome of the session spent in working groups will be a list of possible projects which can be developed to a point where they can be presented to donors for funding. These projects should be seen clearly to address the challenges confronting women in the sectors concerned.
Each group will appoint one of its members as a Rapporteur. The Rapporteur will be responsible for summarising the discussion within the group and for making a short report on the work of the group to the plenary during the Reporting session that precedes the close of the Conference.