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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saying no – Active Citizens in Muzzafargarh and their battle against drug addiction

“People who are drug addicts are most vulnerable in our society and deserve our care, love, and attention”

Says Taimoor Khalid – a young Active Citizen from Muzzafargarh. Taimoor along with four other group members is working with members of his community to help people struggling with drug addiction.

An idea takes root
Drug abuse has always been part of the day-to-day life in Taimoor’s neighbourhood. There is only one public park where Taimoor lives, and as far back as he can remember it has always been home to drug addicts. The drugs of choice: Heroin and Hashish.

According to Taimoor, on a given day it is normal to see 50 to 60 addicts in the park, abusing drugs in public. Over the years this has had the effect of desensitizing people to this damaging practice.

This is why when these five young people were asked to propose a Social Action Project in the final phase of their training, they chose to start an awareness campaign against drug abuse and to work together to help addicts recover from their addiction and to ease their path back into society as valued and contributing members.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the group was convincing families of addicts that drug addiction is a disease and people who abuse drugs require medical attention to recover from it and proper rehabilitation so that they do not relapse.

In most cases the group members found family members of drug addicts indifferent to the possibility of successful treatment of the addiction. According to Taimoor most parents argued that as long as their child was not causing any trouble they did not care. Medical facts and religious reasoning were used by the group to convince them otherwise.

In all the youth group met close to 45 people. Gradually the affected community members began trusting the young people and showed interest in their project.

The group members also spoke to addicts personally and tried to convince them to kick the habit. After a lot of visits 8 drug addicts expressed their desire to sober up.

Besides visiting families of addicts the youth group also visited the local public school, Government Degree College. According to Taimoor, illegal drugs use by high school students is rampant.

The young people discussed their project with the principal of the school who expressed enthusiasm and promised his full support. And so began the second leg of the awareness campaign: high school students of Muzzafargarh. The awareness sessions also included documentary videos which highlighted the perils of drug abuse.

The group also convinced the school administration to declare the entire school a no smoking zone. The principal of the school and some staff members promised to contribute a portion of their monthly pay check to the group to pay for medication and other expenses.

Finally, with 8 people committed to kick their habit the group approached several doctors and medical staff. They managed to convince a few of them to volunteer their time and expertise in detoxification and rehabilitation.

To pay for the medication the group made use of the money collected from the teaching staff of Government Degree College. To raise additional funds they embarked on a scrap collection drive through the entire district. When people found out why they were collecting scrap they happily donated unneeded possessions.

By selling scrap to local junkyards the group was able to raise enough money to meet their expenses and purchase the needed medication.

Round 2
After the treatment of the eight patients ended the group members made a point of visiting them daily to support them through the period of rehabilitation. They have also convinced the recovering addicts to accompany them on their tours to the high school and to participate in their awareness sessions.
Taimoor and his friends now plan to follow the same sustainable model to help other members of the community who suffer from drug addiction.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It takes two – Active Citizens open up new avenues in Multan

As young people growing up in Suraj Miani – a neighbourhood of Multan – Abdul Rahman and Shumaila Bibi always felt the absence of IT training institutes in the area. The nearest computer training institute is 7 – 8 kilometres away and the nearest internet cafĂ© is 3 kilometres away.

Perhaps the absence of a technology institute is felt more acutely by young girls and women of the area. Multan being a conservative city, relatively more avenues for personal growth are open to men than women. This includes opportunities for higher education and professional courses. After graduating high school most women face added restrictions by their families, and unnecessarily venturing out of homes is frowned upon.

At the Active Citizens training that they attended Abdul Rahman and Shumaila proposed a facility where the residents of Suraj Miani – especially women could benefit from technology education and brush up their language skills.

 A local NGO offered them space in their offices to hold the classes, and the youth group managed to arrange 4 computers for the classes – including their personal lap top computers. Now came the hard part: convincing parents of young girls to let them attend the free computer and English classes.

Abdul Rahman and Shumaila arranged two separate meetings: one at the Union Council head quarters for the male members of the community, and one for women and young girls at the residence of a community member. Besides these community meetings the young Active Citizens also took part in a door-to-door awareness campaign to recruit students for the coaching centre.

When asked about the problems faced by the youth group, Abdul Rahman responded that: “the biggest hurdle faced by us was convincing parents of young girls to let them attend the classes. The area we live in is very conservative and women stepping out of their houses are frowned upon”.

Ultimately 90 women and 25 men signed up for the computer classes. As a bonus the young women were also offered and English language course taught by Shumaila while Abdul Rahman along with another volunteer teaches the computer classes. The students are tested after the course is completed and successful candidates are awarded a certificate by the youth group. The ages of the students range from 14 years to 23 years and classes are held four days a week.

Besides acquiring technical skills the training also gives the students the confidence to pursue more challenging opportunities. A clear indication of this is the fact that 3 girls after successfully attending the computer course managed to get jobs in private schools where they teach Microsoft Word and Excel to young female students. This has also inspired other women to sign up for the classes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Banking on education

Sometimes the simplest ideas if put into practice properly can be extremely effective. An example of this is the Social Action Project being implemented by Kiran Kumari: a book bank; a simple but effective concept.

Being a school teacher in Sindh, Kiran knows well the hurdles faced by economically disadvantaged individuals – especially when it comes to educating their children. So it was only logical that when Kiran completed her Active Citizens training she would start a Social Action Project to make the education process less costly for parents who struggle to make ends meet.

Kiran asked her students to donate school books to her so that other, less fortunate children may use them. She also reached out to friends, relatives, and other teachers in the area for any reusable books that they could spare. With the help of her students she got rid of any erasable markings from the books and covered the books with clean scrap paper to protect them.

A large section of Kiran’s class consists of children whose parents don’t have a steady source of income. To make ends meet they work odd jobs – mostly as manual labourers. Kiran made a list of students who came from such homes.

As the donated books started coming in Kiran let the more deserving children know that they could use the books from her book bank free of cost. Her two conditions: that they take care of the books as if they were their own, and that they return them to her at the end of the term.   

Kiran first ‘tested’ her social action project in April, and nearly 60 students were able to make use of the books provided by Kiran. According to Kiran parents who rely on daily wages to get by this was an added bonus.

When asked about her plans for the project, Kiran replies: “I have decided to do this activity every year collect books from last batch and provide to next batch. Through this more than 100 students can get benefit from my book bank”.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Opening closed doors – Active Citizens in Thatta help two feuding tribes find common ground in education

A community divided
The inhabitants of Daggar Khan Palari Taluka – a  small village in Sindh  can be roughly divided into two tribes. Although members of the two tribes have inhabited the same village for a number of years, their coexistence has been less than harmonious.

The community members reached a point where they minimized their interaction as much as possible: there were no joint community events and no shared celebrations for a number of years. The estrangement left no one untouched – including children and young people.

A tale of two schools
The village had two public schools for children before they were shut down. As time went by and grievances remained unresolved the village folk forbade their children to mix or even share the same school.
Due to negligence of the local education authorities both schools suffered. Structural damage and lack of facilities did not stop the village folk from sending their children to school but it was the loss of teaching staff that finally put the breaks on the learning. Both schools were shut down in 2007.
With the passage of time both schools turned into rundown, vacant buildings with peeling paint and windows with shattered glass. The nearest school was in a village more than 5 kilometers away. In the absence of a school to go to children helped their parents in day-to-day chores.

A helping hand
After completing their Active Citizens training Babar and Tanveer wished to start a Social Action Project that would address the problem of ghost schools – a major concern in rural Sindh.  They surveyed the nearby villages and stumbled upon the village of Daggar Khan Palari Taluka – a community with not one but two abandoned schools. They talked to the local Education District Officer (EDO) and brought the matter to his attention. After a few meetings the EDO arranged a survey of both school buildings.
Monsoons had left the roof of one of the schools in very bad shape and the building was deemed too dangerous to use. The second school building was in relatively better shape and the EDO agreed to arrange teaching staff for it.

To their surprise Babar and Tanveer faced stiff resistance from the community they were trying to help. The demand of the community members: either reopen both schools or neither.
Refusing to abandon the progress they had made with the education department the young Active Citizens talked to members of the two tribes in hopes of starting a dialogue between them.

Let’s talk
“We asked them to give the idea of a single school a chance for the sake of their children”
Getting the two parties to talk seemed to be an uphill task at first. One thing in common people from both tribes though was the love of their children: all parents want to see their children do well.  Babar and Tanveer convinced to sit down and talk about finding ways to secure a better future for their children – a future with more opportunities.
Through these talks the two young people helped the community members to realise that some opportunities remain out of reach without formal education. “We asked them to give the idea of a single school a chance for the sake of their children” says Tanveer.
After much discussion the parent of out of school children agreed to one school for their children.

New beginnings
With the help of the residents of the village and the education department staff Babar and Tanveer helped clean up the school building. Within a week the school building was ready to be used again. The EDO’s office also provided 300 – 400 text books free of cost for the students.
Babar and Tanveer volunteered their time to brush up the students’ basic skills. A young person from the village with a high school degree also showed interest in teaching and soon joined Babar and Tanveer in teaching the eager students.
Now the school has a regular appointed teacher and the enrollment has crossed sixty students. with nearly 60% male and 40%female students and their ages range from 7 years to 11 years. Babar and Tanveer visit the school regularly to see if it is operating smoothly and to offer their help if needed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The power of dialogue – Active Citizens facilitate health care in Mehmood Kot

As the 4-day Active Citizens workshop neared its end and the time came to propose a social action project to help resolve an issue that his community was facing, Talha Hassan spent no time in picking health care. Mehmood Kot is a small town in the Multan district with one Basic Health Unit (BHU) facility for the provision of health care to the community members at a low cost.

A modest affair

Mehmood Kot's Basic Health Unit is a modest affair with limited staff and a small dispensary. The bigger medical facility, the District Health Unit (DHU) is a considerable distance away. There are a number of private clinics in the town though which treat the bulk of the medical cases.

Over the years Talha noticed that the dispensary had assumed a more symbolic role a functional one: on some days the medical staff did not show up, and when they did their work hours were erratic. As a result most of the townspeople had no choice but to consult doctors running private clinics. 

This is a costlier option for the residents of Mehmood Kot, most of who depend on a modest source of income to get them through the month.

Hence over the years the utility of the Basic Health Unit was reduced to a place where cheap medicine could be bought.

Shaking things up

Talha and his youth group resolved to change this perception of their community. They wanted members of the community to receive the care they deserved at the BHU. And so they started a two pronged dialogue campaign: they met with community members in a door-to-door campaign to talk about the provision of their basic health rights; and they met the health care staff at the BHU to discuss professional duties that they were neglecting.

In this way the young Active Citizens were successful in starting a dialogue between the residents of Mehmood Kot and the health care staff at the BHU. The result of these meetings was that the health care staff resolved to fulfil their duties and to extend all possible help to the townspeople.    

Keeping Score

To make sure that the BHU staff would make good on their promise and things would not slip back to a similar situation Talha’s youth group formed a committee to monitor the work of the health care staff voluntarily. This committee comprised of the Imam of a local mosque, a social and political activist, and two Active Citizens from Talha’s youth group.

This committee pays regular visits to the Basic Health Unit and they report much improved staff attendance. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mentoring greatness

Asma Farhad teaches at a popular university in Lahore. When discussing the state of education in Pakistan and how it can be transformed, Aasma’s passion for education shines trough: “As an academic, I believe reforms alone cannot provide a solution, our education system rather requires a whole new revolution. I resolve to introduce a novel learning experience to those who need education most”.

Recently Aasma helped her students renovate a computer lab for less privileged young people. With the help of cash donations they also refurbished the faulty equipment. A brief description of the project supplied by Aasma:

We ran a pilot project in the University of Central Punjab, Lahore in August 2012, and experimented with the semi-literate children from slums and very poor economic back ground. Ranging from 8 to 13 years, all these children attended a six days long workshop on using computers as an e-learning tool. To our surprise children who could not even spell their names perfectly were able to use Google search, Google translator, find and play educational games and videos and learnt from them, entered correct URLs, receive and send emails too. That too in just six days!

We also observed that these children did not only enjoy learning, they were stimulated to learn more and often preferred to work independently. This made us work more seriously towards our second goal i.e. to provide free of cost computer and internet access to these children.

For this, our group initiated “donate a computer” drive. We discussed with our friends, family and acquaintances to donate old used computer CPUs, monitors, mouse, wires and key boards. We learnt about an institution in Iqbal Town, Lahore through a friend that provides free of cost education to children with very weak economic back ground. Upon meeting them we learnt that their abandoned computer lab had a few computers lying there.

Our volunteers renovated the lab, repaired old computers, replaced worn out spare parts with the workable ones. The lab is now operational and continues broadening horizons for the young fellows studying there.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Education for all – turning a dream into a reality

Luqman Elahi lives in district Layyah – backward area of Punjab. 70% of the district is rural where a feudal social system of sardars and jageerdars prevails. Enrollment in the local schools is low; poverty plays the biggest role in the schools lack facilities. Ghost schools are a common phenomenon and are mostly used as ‘bhanas ‘(the place where the livestock is penned). Those who are willing to spend money to see their children educated face other obstacles: landlords who discourage education. Luqman chose to work as a youth activist for the development of his area and to help educate the residents of Layyah. He believes that this is possible only through awareness of the benefits of education. Says Luqman: “I will educate them about necessity of education”.
Luqman met different families during his door-to-door awareness campaign. He talked to parents about Article 25a  and how the dream of an educated Pakistan can now be turned into a reality. Luqman discovered that most parents of wanted to educate their children and had hopes for a better future for them – different lives than the ones they lead. The failure to pay the high fee – often to ghost schools is the main reason due to which they chose not to enroll their children in school.
When asked how he would address these challenges, Luqman replied: “I chose to work on admitting underprivileged children in a private school. I knew that it was challenging owing to the fact that they couldn’t afford to pay the high fees on their own”. Luqman met the principal of a local private school to discuss this problem. In the principal he found a kindred spirit who agreed to admit students to his school without charging them any fee for one whole year.
Luqman is not only generous with his time, but does not hold back in spending his money for the all important cause of education: “I managed to pay for their uniform cost but I am looking for sponsors to support the cost of books, stationery for admitted students” he says. Thanks to the efforts of Luqman, 33 children from his community now attend classes regularly without worrying about paying a fee for them for a year.