The empowerment of women is crucial to building communal harmony, believes Hyderabad-based Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA). Hyderabad is a city traditionally prone to communal riots. In December 1992, the post-Babri Mosque demolition riots shocked even the most hardened soul in the city. Concerned members of the Hindu and Muslim communities came together in 1994 with the aim of preventing riots and establishing communal harmony. This association later took the form of COVA.

COVA - an umbrella group of over 100 community-based organisations, most of them in Andhra Pradesh - has since expanded its scope to cover women's empowerment. "There is a powerful connection between communal harmony and empowering women. One is not possible without the other. If a woman is sensitised and empowered, she can be a strong influence on family members who might have got involved in communal conflicts. We believe that empowerment of women is central to the prevention of communal riots," says Asghar Ali, secretary of COVA. "We feel that a woman is empowered if she understands and believes that she has the potential and strength to improve her situation," Ali elaborates. COVA's approach, in short, is non-didactic. It does not, for example, insist that Muslim women volunteers give up their burqas. In fact, most Muslim women volunteers of COVA observe purdah.

Noor Jehan, a dynamic volunteer coordinator of COVA, believes that the purdah (veil) is not a hurdle to progress. "I belong to the Qazi family of Gulbarga. My family is known to have extremely stringent norms for the women of the family. But I believe in what I do here and am able to do it. Earlier, my in-laws were dead against my stepping out of the house. But today, they are proud of my achievements. If you really want to do something, you will find a way of doing it." "As an organisation, we believe that the decision to give up or continue wearing the burqa is a very personal choice. We don't wish to interfere. We seek to instil confidence in women and a yearning to use their lives well," she adds.

Fatima Sultana, 40, agrees. "I used to sit at home all day and had no clue about life outside. I joined COVA because I felt I ought to do something with my life. Now my life has taken a u-turn." Sultana has been with COVA since its inception.

Manovar Fatima has a similar tale to narrate. She heard of COVA from her daughter, who was attending tailoring classes at the organisation. "I used to crochet and, after some initial hesitation, decided to join COVA about seven or eight years ago. The elders at home were unhappy but did not protest too much because my daughter was already going there. Today, not only do I train other girls, I also make new design samples for clothes. COVA has given me the 'himmat' (confidence) that I can do something."

Fatima is now on the board of directors of the Mutually Aided Cooperatives (MAC). MAC, located near Charminar in the old city, is part of the Mahila Sanatkar wing of COVA, which helps women gain economic independence. It has recently launched its own brand - Mahac - of jute products, artificial flowers, cushion covers, embroidery pieces and handmade paper. COVA's process of helping women on their journey to empowerment and its conscious decision not to thrust choices on them is the key to its success. However, the main focus of work at COVA remains the sensitisation of people against communal violence.

The interplay between women's empowerment and prevention of communal riots became clear in 2002, when women volunteers of COVA successfully prevented eruption of riots in reaction to the situation in Gujarat. Risking their lives, women from various communities came together on March 8, 2002 to form a human chain. The women prevented riots by simply holding hands. The governor of Andhra Pradesh felicitated these women for displaying extraordinary courage and presence of mind.

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"I see this as the concrete result of the years of work and effort that we have put in. The women were empowered enough and believed in us strongly enough to risk their lives. Some women even came out to join us against the wishes of their husbands and families," Noor Jehan says. Ali elaborates, "This was a strong expression of empowered women, who came together to assert that they didn't want violence." COVA volunteers played a key role in the aftermath of the riots that took place late in 2003 as well. "We were caught totally off-guard when the riots erupted this time. However, we were later able to diffuse the tension somewhat by preventing rumourmongers from creating tension," Ali says.

COVA volunteers link peace with people by empowering themselves. They are testimony to the fact that the power to contain communal violence does indeed rest with the people; people like you and me.