Atia Anwer Zoon works across Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan in the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir. She conducts workshops, trainings, focus group discussions and small meetings with women including those in the Neelam valley, along the LoC – an area that has suffered direct fighting and a lack of economic development due to the conflict. Atia participated in the Disaster Preparedness and Conflict Fellowship in 2015.

I was really inspired by the optimistic idea of exploring a joint disaster management mechanism between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir.

How did undertaking the fellowship impact you personally?

For the past five years, I have been working on mainstreaming gender in the peacebuilding work in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, with particular focus on building women’s capacities and skills through workshops and trainings. During this work I am able to listen to women speak about the challenges and issues they are facing in their lives and the opportunities and spaces available to them. 
The fellowship experience added a new lens to my work on women in AJK, particularly in the context of its recent history with the deadly earthquake of 2005 and floods of 2010 and 2014. During meetings and focus group discussions I have met many women (in Muzaffarabad, Neelum Valley and Rawalakot Poonch) whose families have been affected by these natural disasters. They were still struggling with post-disaster trauma almost a decade after the earthquake. The fellowship helped me understand the importance of building resilient communities who are well prepared to respond to natural disasters through having early warning education and mechanisms in place. It helped me visualize active community roles for women during times of disasters in all stages – preparedness, response, relief and post-disaster trauma healing. 

What specifically did you gain from this fellowship?

The most important aspect of this fellowship was conflict sensitive disaster management.  Disasters know no geographical boundaries and therefore create a special opportunity for conflict sensitive regions like Jammu and Kashmir. I was really inspired by the optimistic idea of exploring a joint disaster management mechanism between the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir. This could work purely on humanitarian grounds, thereby creating space for people-to-people contact and possibly ensuring a quicker response to disasters. The fellowship also provided a unique opportunity for the participants from both sides of the divide to explore the potential of cross LoC joint disaster management. As a result of shared analysis, trainings and discussions, we jointly developed a policy brief on this subject titled ‘Bridging Divides’.
Another important dimension that the fellowship focused on was gender sensitive disaster management, which I found particularly relevant. We discussed the need for detailed analysis of how disaster affects men and women differently, recognizing the exclusive needs of women and giving a gender-sensitive response during rescue, relief and rehabilitation. 
The fellowship gave me the opportunity to talk with experts on disaster-related research, and listening to a range of examples from across the globe I learned how disaster preparedness and responses can be tailored according to the local sensitivities of the context.

How have you applied what you learnt to your work?

Since the fellowship, we have had regular discussions and analysis sessions in our organization to develop a better understanding of disaster management and explore workable options for improving disaster management mechanisms. In these discussions we have also involved professionals working with the state disaster management body to have a shared and practical analysis. I stressed the need to include gender sensitive disaster management as a compulsory component of their policy, and suggested having local volunteer task forces for youth and women who can be given technical training to support citizens in times of calamities.