"Honor" Killings Averted: How a USIP-Trained Pakistani Helped Save Lives

By: 
Thomas Omestad

USIP has been training Pakistanis from a variety of backgrounds in practical peacebuilding, creating—with the help of a local partner--a network of conflict managers in a strategically vital country plagued by instability. Here is the exclusive story of how a USIP-trained conflict manager helped to avert “honor” killings in a rural Pakistani village.

Photo credit NYTimes

It started with a mischievous bid for romance. A 15-year-old boy wrote a love song in a letter and tossed it to a 19-year-old woman walking past—a married woman, it turned out. In their traditional, rural village in Pakistan's Sindh province, that simple act turned ominous immediately, with nearly lethal results for the young woman, the boy and other family members and friends in their wheat- and cotton-growing community of 2,500 people.

Yet, what looked certain last summer to trigger an "honor" killing of the woman by her own husband's family and a revenge killing of the boy—along with likely fighting between the two families and their supporters—was averted after the quick intervention of a Pakistani man who was trained in mediation and managing conflict by specialists from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).

The actual identities of the parties to the dispute, those helping to mediate and the village itself are being withheld to preserve their privacy and safety and to avoid disrupting the hard-won peace that has prevailed.

Two—and potentially more—lives were saved, and the threat of violence hanging over a Pakistani village was lifted. Building that sort of capacity for practical peacebuilding in volatile but strategically vital Pakistan is just what was envisioned by the designers of a USIP program to train a network of conflict managers, also known as peace "facilitators."

Since 2009, USIP has trained 93 people in Pakistan as conflict managers, and they are taught in ways that prepare them to train yet others in assessing and defusing conflicts. The Pakistan effort follows similar USIP initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, it has focused initially on three areas: the conflict-ridden Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), particularly the Swat Valley within KPK. More recently, several dozen Pakistanis were trained in Sindh province, concentrating on the fractious commercial hub of Pakistan, Karachi. An ethnically diverse group of men and women, they are Pakistanis from nongovernmental organizations, academe, media and law practices. They also include law enforcement personnel and tribal, community and religious leaders. This network of conflict managers, as well as follow-up training and evaluation, is maintained with a local USIP partner: the nonprofit, Islamabad-based Sustainable Peace and Development Organization (SPADO).

Says Nina Sughrue, a USIP senior program officer who leads the effort and serves as a trainer herself, "We're building grass-roots capacity for people to solve their own conflicts in a non-violent way."

Her fellow trainer and senior program officer, Linda Bishai, adds, "The news in the U.S. often portrays Pakistanis as either extremists or victims of violence, but those who come to our workshops demonstrate that people in Pakistan can be something else. Our participants are a diverse group of talented peacebuilders who are eager to gain skills and make connections with others so they can have a greater impact in helping their own communities."

The USIP-trained conflict manager who helped sway the village dispute toward a peaceful resolution is a middle-aged, college-educated man. Amin, a pseudonym, serves as a social worker with a respected nongovernmental group that handles community and development projects.

He and 39 other people met in Karachi in June of last year to receive training from USIP's Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. Tailored for non-specialists, the instruction ranged from conflict analysis and communication methods to dealing with differences, negotiation and problem-solving. "I received a lot of knowledge and [conflict management] techniques from the training," Amin says.

A Village Crisis

The story of the village crisis brought to closure, as recalled by Amin with the assistance of SPADO head Raza Shah Khan, suggests the potential for an expanding network of Pakistani conflict managers to take on more of the very disputes that can spark violence—and sometimes take on a broader, destabilizing character by attracting the involvement of militants.

The village incident began when a married daughter of local farmers—call her Seetha--picked up the letter tossed by the boy—call him Farooq. Seetha began reading his note with the love song, his cell phone number scribbled at the end. Within moments, Seetha's brother-in-law spotted her with the letter. It was shown to her 25-year-old husband, who demanded to know whether she had a relationship with Farooq. No, she told her husband and his family, she didn't know that boy, and there had been no previous communications between them.

Her husband believed her, but her in-laws did not. They accused Seetha of carrying on an illegitimate relationship with Farooq, invoking what in the Sindh language is called karo-kari: the longstanding ritual of punishing alleged male and female adulterers. It persists as a deadly tradition in Sindh and some other parts of Pakistan. In such a case, the claim of karo-kari leads family members of the girl or woman to claim the authority to kill her—and the co-accused boy or man—in a bid to restore their sense of family honor. The ritual typically commences with the murder of the boy or man, followed by that of the girl or woman. The resulting enmity can linger for years—or generations. Despite legislation and growing demands to stamp out the practice, it hangs on in rural Pakistan.

That seemed to be the trajectory of events building back in the village, and Seetha's personal nightmare was only deepening. Imprisoned in the home of her in-laws, she was chained, beaten and tortured. Her husband remained silent, nursing his own doubts that she actually had had any "illegal" relationship with the boy. And Seetha's desperately worried parents were growing angrier over her captivity.

Vengeance on their minds, the woman's in-laws combed the village for the boy. But Farooq, a child of lower middle-class farmers like Seetha's family, was nowhere to be found. He had already fled to a nearby hamlet to hide out with a grandparent. The families, fearing attack or spoiling for revenge, gathered their rifles and pistols in anticipation of a clash. The fact that the families had connections through intermarriage did nothing to quiet the growing feud.

Training Put to Use

Farooq's father then took a critical step: He sought help from Amin, whom he knew as a trustworthy community worker with a group that helps disadvantaged Pakistanis get access to education, jobs and public services.

Amin was ready to take the assignment, seeing a chance to use his new skills gained at the USIP training just weeks earlier. Farooq's father asked Amin to figure out how the growing dispute might be resolved peacefully.

Amin sorted through the particulars of the conflict and explored ways to launch a mediation effort. He asked both families for their ideas. Amin proposed that he and the boy's father go to an important village leader—a former nazim, a position akin to mayor.

The USIP training on conflict analysis and mediation encouraged Amin to look dispassionately at who was best positioned to conduct face-to-face mediation going forward. To Amin, the former leader of this quite traditional village was the right person to sit down with the two, now deeply hostile families. Known and respected by both families, the former nazim had the standing and trust to conduct fact-finding and negotiations, Amin believed, and he seemed a sympathetic and patient personality. Amin asked the village leader to intervene in preventing bloodshed, and he agreed. To reduce the chances of immediate violence, Amin also arranged for the hunted Farooq to leave the area, securing a temporary factory job for him in Karachi.

With Amin's encouragement, the village leader wrote letters to both families asking them to visit him, separately, at his home. The initial response was not good. Farooq's father wanted to move ahead, but the rest of his family was not willing to sit down and resolve the matter peacefully. Amin decided to visit both families in their homes; he was able to wear down the opposition of each to coming to meet with the village leader.

The talks led by the ex-nazim lasted one month. Amin stayed in the background, quietly advising and supporting the village leader as he stuck with a painstaking process. "I was not directly mediating the conflict but rather providing a forum for effective mediation and dialogue to resolve it peacefully," he recalls.

When the talks did begin, each family refused to listen to the other. But the village leader ultimately peeled away that resistance. He concluded that Seetha's in-laws were unable to prove that she and Farooq had carried on an illegitimate relationship. There was no concrete proof, and the fact of tossing a love letter in front of Seetha was no basis for declaring that the two merited karo-kari. The ex-nazim was able to convince Seetha's in-laws. The women of that family then agreed to perform another cultural ritual known in Sindh as mianri merh. They visited Farooq's family in a pivotal gesture of reconciliation. That done, his family was obliged to honor the village leader's judgment—and accept the matter as closed. The act of mianri merh announced to all in the village that the crisis was peacefully resolved and that the two families were no longer enemies. The threat of violence subsided.

The successful intervention harnessed the instruction Amin had received from USIP. "It was the practical implementation of the skills and knowledge I gained during the trainings," says Amin. He is currently at work on other karo kari cases in Sindh.

A Network's Potential

The peaceful outcome in this Sindh village suggests the broader potential of the Pakistani program. "With these trainings, we haven't only built capacity to train others at the community level," said SPADO's Khan. "In fact, we're saving innocent lives and promoting a true culture of peace and non-violence in the communities."

The Pakistani facilitators have achieved other successes as well. Two land conflicts have been resolved, and another is being managed without violence. Ethnic confrontations have been mediated, and so was a dispute over humanitarian assistance to victims of flooding. A stand-off between two unions was ended, as was a community conflict over a mosque during the most recent Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. "The multiplier effect of the network is vast," says Sughrue. "Many members have used the USIP materials and training to then train others in their organizations and communities on USIP frameworks for conflict resolution."

Pakistanis working on conflict resolution and rights issues have asked USIP to expand the program. The Institute hopes to do follow-up trainings in Sindh and new trainings elsewhere, as well as support SPADO-managed initiatives to strengthen the network of conflict managers. Says Sughrue, "It's a cost-effective way to train people who can immediately start working on real conflicts."

The program is training Pakistanis in the ways of handling an array of conflicts that spring from daily life—but that can inject even more instability into a country already plagued by it. By tackling disputes before they become fodder for militants, Khan sees expanding the conflict managers' network as part of efforts to bolster Pakistan's insufficient capacity to counter radicalization. "I envision that our conflict-resolution mediators from many different backgrounds will evolve into a credible national network at both the grass roots and policy levels—one voice helping us to institutionalize peacebuilding in Pakistan," says Khan.

Sughrue points to benefits as well for the health of the sensitive U.S.-Pakistani relationship. "This is a really positive U.S.-Pakistani partnership. It helps transform the way some locals think of the United States. We're not just seen as warriors but as peacebuilders working in tandem with them," she says.

Explore Further

(Top three photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and New York Times. Bottom photo: a USIP training workshop in Pakistan.)

May 30, 2012
Countries: