At a breakfast meeting in early June, Nepali peacebuilder Sumina Karki treated her Rockingham County Rotary Club hosts to what she called a “rosy picture” of her native land. She referred to the natural beauty of the country, to Mount Everest and Shangri-La, the legendary land of enlightenment, before focusing on the goals of her own work — and the reason she has been in the United States for the previous month at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI).
“Nepal has lived in and experienced a 10-year long conflict which killed more than 13,000 people,” she said. “In 2006, the conflict ended in a peace agreement between the Maoist party, the insurgents back then, and a seven-party alliance. During the peace process, the monarchical system was supplanted by a new form of governance. At present, we are still in the process of sorting out our truth and reconciliation commission, which means we are trying to deal with historic harms against many people.”
The process, she added, has been complicated by two massive earthquakes in April 2015 that killed nearly 9000 people and destroyed many homes and infrastructure. Ensuing distribution of resources has sometimes raised previously simmering local and regional conflicts.
Karki, 29, is a program officer with The Asia Foundation and a founding member of the Nepalese feminist group Chaukath. She is also a 2017 Winston Fellow at SPI. The Winston Fellowship is a full-tuition scholarship that partners with organizations to provide training and mentorship for a person who is “new to peacebuilding.” The application comes from the organization as well as the individual. A six-week internship after attendance at SPI is also required, with specific objectives and an action plan.
Connected by previous SPI participant
Karki was encouraged to apply for the Winston Fellowship by Preeti Thapa, senior program officer and an SPI participant in 2008. In all, 21 Nepalese have attended SPI, including 2015 Winston Fellow Sujan Rai, of the Nepal Transition to Peace Institute. More recently, in 2016, EMU and the Zehr Institute of Restorative Justice hosted a contingent of Nepalese judges and law enforcement officials for three days of learning about restorative justice.
SPI has provided Karki with new skills – she took courses in faith-based peacebuilding, conflict coaching, and truthtelling, reconciliation and restorative justice – but also time to “refuel and reflect,” she said. “I didn’t realize that we invest so much energy in re-energizing and motivating people we work with. I am not saying I am always successful in doing that, but that is part of my role as a peacebuilder. Working along with local facilitators to bring stakeholders to dialogue and working with them, filling them with positivity and optimism, encouraging them—all of that takes a lot of mental, spiritual and physical energy.”
At SPI, “there is so much to learn and you come to realize that you are not the only one, that there are people around the world who are working in really difficult situations and still hopeful that change can happen,” she said. “I have derived much positive energy from that.”
Conflict transformation and peacebuilding
Karki came to peacebuilding three years ago after working several years as a journalist and as a researcher. Seeking to make a tangible impact and to contribute to improved governance in Nepal, she began working in dialogue and community mediation with The Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
Karki manages community mediation and dialogue programs from her base in the capital city of Kathmandu, often traveling to different conflict hotspots to train and collaborate with dialogue facilitators.
Karki calls dialogue processes a “preventive and more proactive way of managing conflicts.” While dialogues have been used to promote greater discourse and strengthen relationships of the negotiating disputing parties, such platforms have also been used as a mechanism to manage violence and conflict.
The Asia Foundation is widely regarded in Nepal for efforts in training communities about mediation and dialogue as a tool for conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Their initial work in mediation began with research in the early 1990s; it wasn’t until 2002 that the nonprofit moved into implementation with culturally relevant, updated, and gender-sensitive programming.
“Nepal is divided in terms of caste, class, gender, and ethnicity, so the power dynamic in these mediations is always challenging,” Karki said. “Many of the citizens in these areas cannot easily access judicial systems, so it’s become important to train community leaders in mediation skills to resolve conflict and disputes, which can be over land, community forests, family issues, even domestic violence.”
Prior to this program, arbitration was the operating mechanism for these areas of Nepal. “A local leader resolved the dispute and decided on behalf of the party,” Karki explained. “In community mediation, the parties are responsible for discussing their dispute and coming up with a solution, and mediators are responsible for managing its process.”
Also, she notes that despite having a female president and around 30 percent female parliamentarians, Nepal is highly patriarchal. Out of 7,000 mediators, The Asia Foundation has trained more than 2,000 female mediators – an important step towards inclusion and equity at the community level.
“Working with local female mediators and trainers fills me with hope and determination,” says Karki.