PEACE BY PIECE
IF SOMEONE HAD told Pong Lai-hing 12 years ago she would one day be in the running for a Nobel prize, she would have scoffed at the suggestion. Life was then very much about survival: as a recently laid-off factory worker she was struggling just to bring home bread for her ailing parents.
Having reinvented herself by enrolling in computer courses, she helped found the Women Workers' Co-operative, which bid for typing commissions and looked out for the welfare of jobless peers.
More than a decade later, the co-operative's work has brought Pong and her colleagues into an arena normally reserved for warring presidents-turned-peacemakers or death-defying political activists. In what is perhaps the most co-ordinated feat in Nobel history, 999 individuals and organisations have been nominated as a collective through a project dubbed '1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005'. The aim is to recognise women whose 'strategies for constructive conflict management should provide important impulses for conflict research and peace policies' around the world.
What sets the list apart from 198 other nominees for the peace prize - among them the late Pope John Paul II, former US secretary of state Colin Powell and the International Atomic Energy Agency - is its celebration of the hard graft put in by grassroots social activists worldwide. The 999 names might be well known in their own communities, but few generate much international press.
In a gesture to honour the struggle for recognition of women's contribution to the world, the 1,000th slot has been left unfilled as a tribute to all the activists the organisers failed to contact.
A fine example of commitment to social justice can be found in the Women Workers' Co-operative, now anchored by seven core members. They run two shops in the poor district of Shamshuipo: the Community Recycling Co-op trades in cast-offs ranging from furniture and cooking utensils to clocks and books, while the Union Mart sells food and other daily necessities at basement prices.
While residents in the neighbourhood see the shop as an important source of household needs, the co-operative - established under the aegis of the trade union Industrial Relations Institute - is scarcely heard of outside Shamshuipo.
What qualifies them as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize is their work in combatting what they describe as the 'economic violence' brought about by economic restructuring in the past few decades.
'The government has always placed the burden on workers themselves, saying we have to learn to adapt and adjust, while factories just upped stumps and moved north without a bit of concern for workers who had toiled for them for years,' says Pong. By embracing egalitarianism and collective action as ways for laid-off women factory workers to get out of financial ruin, the co-operative has pioneered a new approach for a social group marginalised because of their age and gender.
Their use of a second-hand goods shop to redistribute wealth - cast-offs from the middle-class have found new owners in working-class families surviving on welfare since the Recycling Co-op opened three years ago - also places them among activists who seek to create social harmony.
'Our work in balancing the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots proves that it doesn't take influential personalities or tycoons to make a difference,' says Hung Sau-heung, another key mover of the co-operative. 'It's all about unearthing the potential within people.'
Lam Shui-ham, director of the Industrial Relations Institute and a long-time collaborator with the seven women, nominated the co-operative. 'At first I also wondered what links could connect them with the Nobel Peace Prize, but I later realised it's not necessarily about military muscle and all that,' she says.
'Peace can also be seen through the context of everyday life - how some work helps to ease the conflicts brought about by economic upheavals. They've worked all their lives in factories and they didn't just sit there and fester when their employers ditched them; they went their own way and developed a path towards making peace with the hostile economic circumstances around them.'
Echoing the sentiments of the project's initiators - a group headed by European Council member and Swiss parliamentarian Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, who launched the bid in 2003 after seeing women's contribution to the reconstruction of war-torn areas like Bosnia, Georgia and Chechnya - none of the nominees work in mainstream politics. Instead, their fight is against domestic violence, religious intolerance, persecution of sex workers and discrimination based on gender, sexuality and cultural differences.
The calls for nominations began in April last year. The list of 17 names was whittled down by two working groups convened by Lingnan University's Kwan Fong Cultural Research and Development Programme to nine. These were submitted to the organisers in Berne, who will submit the full list to Oslo. The rules of the Nobel Foundation mean only three of the 999 names will be submitted. But the significance that they represent 1,000 women still stands, according to Lau Kin-chi, the project's co-ordinator for China and Mongolia.
Given how people still see the Nobel Peace Prize as a reward for powerful statesmen, it has been an uphill struggle to win media attention for the project, says Lau, with many journalist preferring to focus on celebrity trivia.
In an age where mainstream discourse is belatedly recognising the unpaid efforts of housewives and the importance of issues such as ecological preservation - last year's laureate, Wangari Maathai, is a renowned Kenyan environmentalist who has recently become a government minister - Lau hopes the nomination will help change people's attitudes towards the behind-the-scenes work of women to resolve social conflicts.
Sister Ann Gray's work for the rights and well-being of sex workers receives little affirmation from the Hong Kong public. Having founded Action for Reach Out in 1993, she has braved public criticism for helping one of the most exploited groups of women in society. Although she feels 'privileged and surprised' by the nomination, she believes her work does contribute to peace in Hong Kong.
'Back when I began my work here, people just dismissed these women as the evil in our society,' says Sister Ann, who arrived in Hong Kong from her native Scotland in 1985. 'With Action for Reach Out we are able to bring about understanding and harmony between these women, who have very dire needs, and society in general.'
The same mission drives fellow nominee Liu Ngan-fung, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Association for the Survivors of Women Abuse and a former victim of domestic violence herself. 'It's logical to see that getting rid of violence in the home brings a form of peace,' says Liu, who led a vigorous campaign last year after a woman and her two daughters in Tin Shui Wai were murdered by her abusive husband despite repeated requests for police protection. 'Women-led organisations get little attention from the public - it's as if these issues are lowly matters that don't warrant attention.'
Nominee Rose Wu Lo-sai says ending the oppression of women in the traditionally male-dominated family structure, for example, is a necessary step to eradicating oppression in general. 'The pursuit of peace must start by looking at where the persecution starts - whether it be discrimination based on gender or class,' the director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute and former leader of the Civil Human Rights Front says.
The 1,000 Women project provides a chance for those outside the social elite to have their voices heard and for women's contribution to social progress to be recognised, she says.
'Even in the church, when your views are nowhere near the mainstream and you start criticising the establishment, they'll just brand you as a troublemaker,' she says. 'It's very difficult for a woman to break this barrier. The Nobel Peace Prize might seem a world away from our struggles, but to be involved is actually empowering for everyone concerned.'