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Friday, December 16, 2011

Pakistan: A delicate rebalancing between men and women

Helping poor women to gain some control in their lives is an experience that never fails to encourage us. We’ve found that a kind of delicate rebalancing often happens in families that start working their way out of poverty. This is because all members are needed to make the kind of profound changes that will lift a family into a permanently higher standard of living.

While inequality is the rule in many communities where we work, and traditions that keep women powerless lay heavily on the family, change is possible. It happens without our ‘forcing’ it to happen. Take Muhammed Riaz as an example.

Muhammed belongs to a Syed (high caste) family in the small village of Basti Bhoi Sayyal, Pakistan, and lives with his wife, Musarat Bibi and their young son.

The majority of people in Basti Bhoi Sayyal are poor farmers with small landholdings. Many villagers work for others in the village and in surrounding villages and own no land. The village – and the larger area it is a part of – has no school and no health facilities. The people of the village were badly affected by the floods that ravaged Pakistan in the summer of 2010.

We recently started a project to help villagers in Basti Bhoi Sayyal and other nearby villages to regain what they lost in the flooding, providing livestock, training, and trauma counseling to the most vulnerable families. At the same time, we are mobilizing villagers to take an active role in finding solutions to the problems of their communities which include cultural and social norms that leave women and girls discriminated against and in positions of vulnerability.

When the project started, Muhammed joined in the planning and discussion sessions that were done to assess the needs of his village. However, he did not want to join the Village Flood Response Committee that was formed in the village, and also initially refused to allow Musarat to join this committee, despite the fact that she wanted to, because culturally and historically the women in his caste are not supposed to leave the house without their husbands or fathers. However, following additional discussions with local project staff, Muhammed agreed to attend several training sessions with Musarat. During these training sessions, Muhammed, Musarat, and others from their village talked about the need for a school in their community. With help from local project staff, they formed a plan to start a home school that would be headed by Musarat – the only person in the village with an undergraduate degree. With support and encouragement from his fellow villagers, Muhammed was convinced that this was an important and positive initiative, and agreed to help it happen.

Helping the poorest of the poor to help themselves sets many things into motion - new ideas, new habits, new values. Muhammed and Musarat are only one example. Oftentimes, defeating poverty means defeating oppression, discrimination, and inequality. A woman given honour, being asked to contribute the tremendous gifts within her - this is one of the many faces of victory in the war against poverty.

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