Women power at work

By Onlooker

Ravaged by rains, overflowing sewers and digging by . civic agencies, the approach road to the Karachi Administration Society (adjacent to the PECHS) had been in a state of battered neglect for months.

No one came to attend to it when the post-monsoon road mending work was taken in hand all over the city in August.

Quite belatedly at the end of October, this heavily used stretch of road was put into good shape. Few are aware of the formidable ‘women power’. that went into its repair.

37-02-12-1988But the Councillor of the area, the KMC, the ZMC and other agencies concerned know better. They have found it impossible to ignore the forty or so women who have periodically visited their offices demanding what they insist is their right as tax-payers. They call themselves the Karachi Administration Women Welfare Society.

It is not an association with a formal structure or well-defined functions. It is more a citizens consumer group — though a very localised one.

The most significant aspect of the Welfare Society is that it has worked. Within a span of three months these women — most of them from conservative backgrounds — have managed to stir the relevant agencies into action.

According to Safina Zuhair Siddiqui, the moving spirit behind the Welfare Society, it is impossible to get an official body to act on an issue of public concern if you are a non-entity and attempt to do it single-handedly. She learnt this the hard way when she approached the Karachi Administration Society in a bid to get living conditions improved.

There is much that needs to be changed. Some blocks of the Society have kachcha tracks which pass off as roads. Others have no sewerage system at all. An open nullah on one end overflows its banks and serves as a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Most shocking is the absence of a garbage collection system which means every vacant plot houses piles of refuse which is never removed. Safina’s initial efforts to get this state of affairs changed came to naught.

Safina had nearly despaired when she discovered that her neighbours were equally disenchanted. It was then that she decided to mobilise the women for action. The men had given up a long time ago having failed to get the government to take measures against the Administration Society on grounds of mismanagement. So they sat back, quite willing to let the women take up the cudgels.

 

For the Women’s Welfare Society which held its first meeting on August 12, the past three months have been hectic involving repeated visits to various offices to get its point of view across, modus operandi has been simple but very effective.

“When we have to visit an agency for the first time we get as many of our members to accompany us as we can,” Safina observes. “This could be anything from 30 to 35. The idea is to create an impact on the official we approach and the strategy has worked.” One visit is, however, never enough. Invariably there have to be follow-up visits. Four or five activists pay the necessary repeat calls to get the work done.

Amera, Shahida and Musarrat, who are the keenest and most active workers, are confident that they will succeed this time. Their earlier efforts to organise a garbage collection service on a self-help basis had failed.

They are proud of their achievements so far. Two anti-pye dogs campaigns have been held. Twice KMC’s anti-malarial squads have fumigated the entire Society area. All the damaged roads have been repaired. The nullah has been dredged and treated with insecticides. More street lights are being fixed. Above all, a refuse collection van of the KMC has visited the locality for the first time in decades to remove the garbage.

All this has involved countless visits to at least ten different offices ranging from the Land Department and the Railways to the Mayor and the ZMCs. Safina says she has been visiting or telephoning one office or the other practically every day since August. Not every visit is productive. Sometime a trip to one office might be required only to obtain necessary information about the powers and jurisdiction of an agency.

A graduate with no formal training and experience of this kind of work, Safina who is 57 and a widow, observes, ‘For us it is a process of self-education and training. We have learnt how to present our case. How to argue persuasively without becoming aggressive. How to persist when officials try to put us off on the plea that they are short of funds. We have taken photographs and prepared wall charts and brought the concerned official with us to show him the broken roads, the garbage heaps and the nullah. We have put up banners as a form of silent protest and won over many residents of the locality to our cause.”

From her experience, Safina feels that consumer resistance can work in Pakistan. The concerned institutions have to be made aware of the problems citizens face. Consumer groups can be mobilised to identify the problems and suggest specific solutions.

But this must be a continuous process. Safina has been heartened by the response of the official agencies. Even if they could not help, they have been very polite and courteous to the women.

The success of the Women’s Welfare Society has encouraged it to aim higher. While it plans to keep up the pressure for sanitation measures, its long-term programme includes getting the nullah paved, the sewerage system in the Society completed, all the roads in the locality built, a permanent garbage collection system instituted, the illegal allotment of amenity plots stopped and, most ambitious of all, the work started on a flyover across the railway tracks. And all this for Rs 50 per month each member of the Welfare Society pays voluntarily for . financing its transport expenditure.

Source: Dawn 2 Dec 1988