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Comics for Peace in South Asia
Last uploaded : Wednesday 3rd Aug 2011 at 00:41
Contributed by : Masud Alam


Islamabad, Pakistan --

Tough times demand tough measures, right? Not so for a new wave of development workers and peace activists in South Asia who think that doodling rather than bamboozling might finally yield some results.

Afghanistan is ravaged by a civil war that shows no signs of ending any time soon. Pakistan and India are grappling with a plethora of social issues like poverty, illiteracy, religious intolerance, gender inequality, human rights abuse and rampant corruption, among others. And Pakistan faces the additional challenge of terrorism on its soil, directed at its own people, on a daily basis. Add to this the chronic inability of the state to properly govern, and you get an idea of the sense of helplessness facing millions of people in this region.

That’s where civil society steps in. Non-governmental organisations, philanthropists, campaigners and development workers, are out there trying to alleviate human suffering and bring about healthy change in the region. They mean well, but more often than not their efforts fail to bring about tangible change simply because they cannot effectively communicate with the people they are trying to reach.

But there are a few South Asian campaigners who, in their bid to improve communication, are managing not only to reach out successfully, but to help demolish the artificial barriers of cast, creed and religion in their way.

Sharad Sharma, a social activist based in Delhi, stumbled upon the idea of “grassroots comics”. Simply put, these are drawings by socially active people, including children. And they are giving a voice to the voiceless. These comics dramatise specific issues – such as education, gender discrimination, employment woes, etc. – and bring them to the fore within the community, inspiring debate and dialogue.

Working with disadvantaged communities, Sharma employs comics as a development tool. Using local languages, local visual culture and local metaphors, activists raise local issues in the form of a story. These comics end up as wallpaper, on posters and photocopied for mass distribution. Sharma reports that both the young and old in target communities participate in the drawing of these issue-based comics with equal zeal. And local schools, libraries and community centres are enthused about disseminating the comics, and thus spreading their messages.

A couple of years ago, Sharma brought this medium to Pakistan and managed to arrange a number of well-attended exhibitions featuring comics and drawing workshops in Islamabad and Lahore. Soon enough, the Pakistan chapter of the World Comics Network was born. It has since published a collection of comics, drawn by young and old from all over Pakistan.

Entitled Bolti Lakeerain, or Talking Strokes in Urdu, this comic documents the issues, hopes and aspirations of the common person, adult and child.

Nida Shams, who heads the Pakistan chapter, says people love learning to draw and, without prompting, they have poured out their stories on the lack of proper education facilities, effective care for their community, gender discrimination, power outages, environment, water scarcity and terrorism.

One comic strip in Bolti Lakeerain, for example, shows a mother watching the news of a bomb blast on television and worrying about her daughter who is late from school. Another one tells the story of a young man who fought poverty to earn a college education, only to find that his degree couldn’t land him a job, so in his despair he ended up at a recruitment centre for terrorists.

Afghanistan will have a number of social issues to contend with after it has survived the current onslaught of militancy that threatens its very existence. Yet, even here, the most vocal civil society organisation, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), is already using comics, developed for online forums, to tell the world of the challenges, hopes and aspirations of Afghan woman.

In addition to getting their voices heard, Afghans affiliated with various rights campaigns are also benefiting from advances in online technology by joining a community of international editorial cartoonists and fans of political satire, on a website called Cartoon Movement, which calls itself the “#1 publishing platform for high quality political cartoons and comics journalism”. This is one way otherwise-isolated Afghans are being connected with the rest of the world.

Has doodling resulted in any real change in attitudes where conventional and modern tools have failed? It’s too early to tell. But it has changed the attitudes of activists in this part of the world who are finding out first-hand how simple, affordable and effective a pencil-and-paper campaign can be.


* Masud Alam ( is a former editor of the BBC World Service, and is now working in Islamabad as an independent communications consultant. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews),
2 August 2011, .

Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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