Asking the Right Questions: Some Highlights


by Shelley Anderson

How can I adapt exercises from another country for use in my own community?

Like all good consultations, the Asking the Right Questions consultation raised more questions than it answered. Over 300 inquiries and application were received by the organizers of the consultation, indicating a high interest in the issue of gender-sensitive nonviolence training. The goals of the consultation, established by a team of six organizers (Joanne Sheehan, Dorie Wilsnack, Ellen Elster and Casha Davis of the WRI Women's Working Group; and Isabelle Geuskens and Shelley Anderson of IFOR's Women Peacemakers Program) included:

  • Breaking the isolation of women nonviolence trainers
  • Bridging the gaps between different cultures and social change movements (for example, global justice, youth, trade unions, development, etc.) and in particular between generations of women trainers
  • Supporting women trainers in developing methodologies, materials, modules, to integrate gender into their trainings
  • Exploring new ways of organizing and activism.

The consultation succeeded in bringing trainers from a wide variety of movements and countries together. After a traditional Thai ceremony to focus our wandering spirits, women shared, in an opening exise, some of their experiences as trainers in economic literary, women's empowerment, fundraising, preparing for nonviolence direct action, gender, children's rights, anti-trafficking, and more. Some were gender trainers who wanted to integrate nonviolence in their training, while others were nonviolence trainers who wanted to add a gender perspective to their work.

All the women had a lot of questions!

Where can I find practical information on gender and nonviolence in my own language?

During the welcoming WRI Women Working Group members Joanne Sheehan and Dorie Wilsnack led the group in several exercises. "As a nonviolence trainer," said Joanne, "I know how much my training improves when I share with other trainers. This sharing is one of the most important things I do. We are going to look at nonviolence and gender to see how we can do this together. Our long-range goal is to plant seeds and structures for the on-going empowerment of women trainers. What are the needs and resources we need together? We are going to look at how we can define the kinds of training we do, to see the similarities and the different perspectives, so our trainings can improve. Hopefully we will all go back with a bigger bag of tools." The exercise drew all participants into two circles, an inner circle and an outer circle. Facing each other, participants shared on a one-to-one basis their responses to questions like "What was your first experience as a participant in a training? What does being a trainer mean to you? What was your first experience as a trainer? What was your first experience with nonviolence? When did you first become aware of your gender?"

Creating a Base of Understanding: what are the definitions We Begin With? (Day One)

This exercise helped to create an atmosphere of trust and sharing, as did the moving personal story that began the first full day of the consultation. Sahro Mohammed shared how she lost her family during the war in Somalia. Now a student in the Netherlands, she works with Somali women's group to fight female genital mutilation and to end impunity for crimes against women. A panel moderated by Saswati Roy (India), with Veasna Am (Cambodia) and Okama Epke-Brook (Nigeria, working in Sri Lanka), explored definitions of gender, nonviolence, and power.

That afternoon participants broke into smaller groups to explore more deeply their definitions of key words such as nonviolence, gender, violence, sexism, empowerment, training, power and feminism.

Developing Training Methods: How do we integrate Nonviolence and Gender? (Day Two)

Mai Jan Inkum (Thailand/Kachin from Burma) provided background to the war in Burma during her personal story, while moderator Jill Sternberg (USA/East Timor), Maria Maghi (Indonesia), Susan May Granada (Philippines/Sri Lanka) and Ysabel Perez-Berru (Peru/the Netherlands) explored the day's theme during the morning panel session.

Workshops took place in the afternoon: a four-hour long workshop using the From Violence to Wholeness model was facilitated by Cindy Preston-Pile (USA) and Martine Sauvageau (Canada). The workshop began with an opening ritual, and included an introduction to the process, agreements, a name game, an exploration of responses to violence, images of nonviolence, embodied power, and circle-of-truths. The workshop concluded with an evaluation and closing ritual.

Workshop on Peace Journalism, which included examples of the roles media play in both peacebuilding and in inflaming violence. The role of new technologies such as the internet was also discussed. Sarom Sek (Cambodia) explored the annual peace march in Cambodia in her workshop on Dhammayietra Training Models and Applications.

Lee Mckenna duCharme (Canada) facilitated a Training for Economic Literacy with Popular Education Methods. Participants were divided into two groups and asked, as a group, to design together the ideal village. Two very different and beautiful drawings were made by the groups, who then explained why the villages were made the way they were. Then Lee, complete with hat and tie, and a volunteer then visited each village as representatives of a multinational corporation. The two, speaking quickly and persuasively, tried to persuade the villagers that their lives would be better if they sold the communities' natural resources to the corporation. Specific villagers were offered large sums of money to sell the resources to the corporation. The second half of the "Village Game" consisted of a de-briefing: discussion about what had happened, and about the successful or unsuccessful ways the villagers developed to retain their ideal home. Some villagers stood on their drawing when the businessmen tried to grab it. Others linked arms and physically separated the businessmen from the drawing. One village leader, drawing on local custom, walked the businessmen away from the other villagers, insisting that the businessmen must drink coffee with the village elder before any negotiations began.

The exercise was very participatory and there were several questions about the methodology. For example, the 'villagers' belonged to many different nationalities--how would it have played out if it had been participants from only one country? Or if it had been a male-only or a mixed (female and male) group? Lee said she has used this tool in mixed groups, and that while women were normally the first to feel anxious about the appearance of the businessmen, the women in mixed groups usually wait for a male leader to take action. Men were often the first to create physical protection for the village, and were often very confrontational. Often during the game a villager will agree to betray the village. It is almost always a man who agrees to betray the village, perhaps because "men usually receive the economic benefits first."

Lee said she would point out the differences in behavior between women and men as the differences appeared during the game, in order to raise questions about gender. She asks some participants to be observers during the game, and ask them to tell the entire group what they saw. "Observing is a great way to elicit discussion without judgment," she said. The game is most often played with between 20 to 25 people. Popular education methodology involves supporting people to name their Experience, then to Reflect upon the experiences, Generalize the experiences and reflections, and then to Apply the learnings to reality.

Integrating the personal and political (Day Three)

Joy Mbaabu (Kenya) shared her story, telling participants, "We all need to have supportive relationships from where we can derive moral will and strength. My high moment was when my organization premiered mediation training in my country. We are still lobbying for mediation's inclusion as an official method of conflict resolution. Our targets are refugee women, the marginalized, and poor urban women. It is exciting times when we finish a training and these women have completely transformed their thinking. They have a new sense of power and looking at life."

Marianne Wiseman (Australia/Kosov@) moderated the panel of Maria Tsvere (Zimbabwe), Clotilde Ngendakuma (Burundi) and Zulfinar (Aceh). Maria talked about violence against women and children in Zimbabwe, while Clotilde spoke of how trainings have helped women deal with the trauma of the genocide in Burundi, and supported reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. "These trainings allowed participants to open up. Before this women were afraid. No body wanted to say they were Hutu or Tutsi. But after undergoing these trainings, women were proud to say they belonged to their ethnic group. I saw that this could help improve ethnic relationships," she said. The work has also helped her to heal her own wounds, she said.

Aceh: Peace Education is essential

Zulfinar, a peace educator in Aceh, Indonesia, spoke next. "Aceh faces an endless cycle of violence due to rich resources," she said. "It is very complicated, and not just an ethnic conflict but a political conflict between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Peace education is essential due to this.

"Most Aceh people are victims in this fighting. The political situation is very unpredictable. The killings made a mark especially in rural areas. In the capital city there is some conflict, but in rural areas there are many armies, and very scared villagers. Children see soldiers every day, and guns and tanks. So when they play they say 'I'll be a sergeant.' This effects education. In 1998 schools were burnt so many can't go to school. Many children study at the mosques.

"It is hard for us to find justice. If we want to solve this conflict we must have education. Peace education is the best way to tell how important peace is in life. Banda Aceh has the first of its kind peace education program, based on Islamic and Aceh tradition, in Indonesia. Most of the program aims are Muslim. They include the ability to respond to conflict without bloodshed; how to neutralize violence; strengthen tolerance in a diverse world; develop moral character for young adults; good Islamic qualities; and how to act as responsible members of society. "The program allows children to play a dominant role in their own learning. It allows children to discover ways to deal with conflict creatively. Our peace education has games, drums, has a relation with students' daily life. This participatory method is new in Aceh. This training is just given to students, because they are the leaders of the future.

"At first Aceh people were pessimistic when we presented this training to the students. People said it doesn't reach those who do the conflict--give it to GAM and TNI (the Indonesian military)--not to the children! Our answer was that soldiers want to fight, so the training won't be successful with them. "Being a trainer of peace education makes me feel I make a contribution. Most students after the training have more knowledge about equality. Women always get second place in Aceh. It is a culture where women can't be leaders. In the family the boy gets an opportunity to do everything, but the girl just stays in the kitchen. As a trainer I give hope to people that violence can be solved without violence. I've only been training since 2000. I want to learn from you!" The afternoon workshops included sessions by Virginia Pilua (Solomon Islands), Julienne Mukabucyana (Rwanda) and Joanne Sheehan (USA).

Working in the World (Day Four)

Jill Sternberg led participants in a moving tribute to women who have suffered from violence, and to the women who inspire us. Janine Ahie then greeted the consultation in Maori during her personal story, and led participants in an energizing set of exercises. Moderator Okama Ekpe-Brook (Nigeria) introduced Joanne Sheehan, who spoke about War Resisters' International's (WRI) new Nonviolence Program. The goal of this program is to develop and distribute resources, including a handbook with case studies and training exercises. The program will include networking; campaigning resources; materials on conscientious objection (to include gender sensitive training); a Dealing with the Past component (on ways communities can heal from the trauma of organized violence, including seeking justice); and workshops and trainings on active nonviolence. This last component will concentrate on the development and making available materials on-line. Janet Wambedde (Uganda), Rasoamihamina Razananoely (Madagascar) and Ia Verulashvili (Georgia) then addressed the question of how we can bring our training to a wider audience. Ia cautioned activists to join together in coalitions because "No one listens to you if you are alone."

Peter Slattery then gave a workshop for all participants on ideas and strategies about working with men and boys about gender. "Gender is part of everything, every single thing, we do," Peter began. "So whenever you work, it includes gender. Men are scared about gender. Many men become defensive, because men have been attacked, for very good reasons, when the talk turns to gender. The exercises I will do with you I would do with men and boys." "First, write down in pictures or words: What gives your life meaning and purpose? What do you hold close to you? Write it down. Look at what you've written--is anything there that is the most important? What stands out?" Peter then asked the participants to get in small groups of five or six, to talk about what they wrote down, and to make a body picture/sculpture/image of one thing that gives meaning to their lives. Making such physical images helps people who are illiterate, he pointed out, or who are speaking a language that is not their mother tongue. "There is also lots of discussion about men not being good in talking," he said. "In this exercise we are trying to find out what matters to men, so that we can have a conversation. So if you feel threatened and attacked, as men are these days, instead of telling men anything, ask them things. I emphasize that the men I work with have absolute privacy and control over what they say. Just to focus on who you are and how you respond, that's gender. I constantly move from playful to serious, from general to personal, from power relations in the world to power relations in your family." During the afternoon participants divided themselves into different groups to visit four separate local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The NGOs included The Community Health Project, founded by Mrs. Pimjai Inthamul, a prominent grassroots leader who has been living with HIV for the past 16 years. Mrs. Pimjai has integrated Buddhist practice and activism in her personal life and in her work.

The Women's Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE) supports refugee women from Burma in four project areas: early childhood development (WEAVE supports some childcare centers in refugee camps); women's health education, capacity development and income generation: WEAVE, PO Box 58, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai 50202, Thailand. Tel. +66 53 221 654; tel/fax +66 53 357 695. Email: Web:

Education Means Power of Women Engaged in Recreation (EMPOWER) is a local NGO that speaks out for the rights and protection of women in the sex industry. EMPOWER centers in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai provide legal and health services, language training (particularly in English, so sex workers can better negotiate with foreign clients), skills development, and a sense of community among women.

Lastly, the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) combines feminist and Buddhist principles and methodology in its work to support grassroots and NGO activists working for social change in the areas of justice and peacebuilding. The core components of IWP's programs are nonviolence, feminism and spirituality to promote social change. IWP conducts its work with activists from India (Ladakh and Tibetans in exile), Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. IWP's work includes trainings, seminars and study tours, and regional and international workshops. The focus of IWP's work since 2003 has been active nonviolent resistance, leadership for social change, gender and diversity and Buddhist peacebuilding, and anti-oppression work between women from the global north and global south. Participants visited the center in Mae Rim and met Ouyporn Khuankaew, the IWP director and co-founder.

Programmes & Projects

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