MINGORA — Neelam Ibrar Chattan makes breakfast for her mother and younger brother, serving them and rushing out the door without eating anything. As the young woman leaves, her mother Mariam Bibi recites Koranic versus in the hope of protecting her. Her husband died of heart attack about 12 years ago.
"I encouraged Neelam because it was her father's dream to be a social worker," Bibi says. "I want my daughter to play her role for the people of the area and also fulfill the dream of her father. I know people don't like her going out of the house and working in the community but I don't care. I trust my daughter."
She earns around $60 a month sewing cloths and gives half of that to her daughter to help buy drawing material for her workshops entitled, "Peace for a New Generation." The 21-year-old Neelam runs conflict-resolution workshops for children whose family members include Taliban militants fighting the government. She holds these sessions 15 times a month in different areas.
"I have seen children as young as 12 and 13 in my village join Taliban militants just so they can get some money or have guns so that other people are afraid of them," Neelam says. "I decided to work to save my generation from terrorism and educate them about peace."
Recognition for hard work
Last year, she was awarded the European Union-Paiman Trust Gold Award for her peace efforts. Twice a month she holds a meeting for women whose husbands have gone missing fighting the war between the Taliban and the government. Khalida, 42, rarely misses one of Neelam's workshops. She comes from a family that has traditionally supported the Taliban militants. Her husband joined the Taliban and never returned home.
"Neelam encouraged me to live a happy life and to sent my children in school and to keep my children away from the weapons and terrorism," she says.
After talking with the women Neelam leaves to go to another workshop. This time it's a drawing one for children on the outskirts of Mingora. The children don't get the opportunity in school to learn drawing and painting. Neelam sees creativity as a way of teaching children to "build" and "construct" rather than "destroy." Saad Ali, who is just 11, has drawn two scenes of his village using green and grey colored pencils.
"This is the place of peace where there is no terrorism and fighting, and here is a place where fighting has been and that is not so nice," he says of his art.
After last year's Peshawar school massacre, the government allowed teachers to carry guns. It's something Neelam regards as a big mistake. In June, a teenaged student was killed when his teacher accidently shot him as he was checking his gun.
"I request all parents and government officials to ban weapons in schools," says Sardar Ali, the grieving father. "I am afraid other children might die tomorrow like my son was killed. School is a place of learning and education, and we should not allow weapons there."
It's one of many battles Neelam is fighting to create a peaceful Swat Valley.
"Most people say that women can't do anything positive in our society," she says. "It encourages me to prove these people wrong since I work for the basic rights of children like the right of life and the right to education. I have reached over 500 children so far who are directly or indirectly affected by terrorism. At least, these families live a better life because of my efforts."