By Zubeida Mustafa
IT is inspiring to see ripples of awakening run through people who have been downtrodden and oppressed for centuries. The first time I had this experience vis-à-vis Sindh was way back in 1985 when I travelled to Tharparkar.
I met a doctor, Hussein Bux, in a village called Tando Kolachi in Mirpurkhas. After having graduated from Liaquat Medical College, Hyderabad, he had returned home and was working to introduce the process of change in his village. He had even set up a library there which to my bibliophile instinct was the ultimate sign of enlightenment.
The reading room project excited me so much that for a year I mailed copies of Dawn to Dr Bux though I never heard from him again. I still wonder how many people in that goth would have read an English-language newspaper! I don’t know whether the good doctor managed to change the life of his community. But it is heartening to see that this spirit lives on, it being a different matter whether change will actually come.
Take the case of the two remarkable women I met when the Women Action Forum’s Hyderabad chapter was launched in 2009. Amar Sindhu and Arfana Mallah, who teach at Jamshoro, have been waging a tireless battle against the evil practices that have become so familiar to us — karo kari, jirgas, violence against women, etc. The duo have travelled on foot, by bus and in Amar’s little car to reach out to women all over the province. They have had to suffer for sticking their necks out too far but they are making an impact.
Only recently I met two women who were in Karachi to sign agreements with the Sindh Education Foundation which has launched public-private programmes, the latest being the Integrated Education Learning Programme. Parveen Siddique (of Aurat Welfare Organisation, Nawabshah) and Siddiqa Muzaffar (of Nari Welfare Organisation, Tando Allahyar) had travelled to Karachi to consolidate their educational projects. That means some stirring is taking place in regions that were considered to be backwaters. These women are optimistic about enrolling hundreds of girls and boys in their upcoming schools. They informed me that women have now started speaking up against some of the retrogressive customs that victimise them. Many are set to break the shackles that have bound them for centuries.
A testimony to the Sindh awakening is the village of Khairo Dero (Larkana district) where the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust under the dedicated supervision of Naween Mangi is working to change lives. After an initial period of unresponsiveness, there has been a breakthrough. The Citizens Foundation school in the village has 180 children on its rolls, the maximum it can accommodate. Naween says more wanted to join but the school’s capacity is limited.
More success stories come from Sadiqa Salahuddin, the enterprising director of the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) which now runs 130 schools in the province where 408 teachers are employed to teach 10,322 children, more than half of them girls. With women emerging at the forefront, it is understandable that the focus is on them. The IRC recently conducted a baseline study on Reproductive Health through Girls’ Education. Its objective was to develop an integrated model for female education. A participatory methodology was adopted with trained core teams holding 161 focus group discussions to collect qualitative data. What were their findings?
Awareness now exists among the people, even women. But there is a flip side. The same women who display so much awareness also express despondency. They feel they can do little to help themselves despite being equipped with knowledge: poverty ties their hands.
Take the cases of health, education, marriage and birth control. The level of awareness shown by the people, both men and women, is striking. It seems the right message has found its way even into the remote rural areas. All the women who participated in the survey stressed the importance of health and linked good health to sanitation and nutrition. They could also understand the correlation between health and happiness and between health and education.
Likewise the women’s information on maternal health and the importance of spacing of pregnancies for the health of mothers was remarkable. Years of awareness-raising campaigns have paid dividends. The age of marriage has gone up as the number of children has come down somewhat. Education is described as the “source of light”.
But the survey also makes one sad. The underlying thread running through the dialogues was that poverty was a millstone that bogged down people and they could not achieve what they knew was good for them. The sense of deprivation was acute. As one woman succinctly put it, “How would we know the connection between education and good health? We have neither.”
But worst still was the low status of women and a distorted sense of family honour and other myths related to religion that actually obstruct change. Women have no say in decision-making. Girls are not consulted in the selection of their marriage partners. Violence against women is rampant. If women do not retaliate it is because they are not empowered.
But change is inevitable because the process of awakening cannot be reversed. The power structure is bound to crack and then there will be no going back. But what the future direction will be is difficult to say.