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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Football for peace

September 21 is marked internationally as ‘The International Day for Peace’. 'It is a day when communities are urged to consider ways in which they can promote and strengthen the ideals of peace within themselves and with other communities.

Swat is a district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not too far from the Pakistan-Afghan border. Swat was once renowned, and still is, for its natural beauty; but Swat also has a troubled past.

Extremist elements had been gaining strength in the region ever since the Taliban established their government in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Skirmishes between extremist elements escalated in 2007 to an occupation of the region by militants. It took two years of on-and-off armed conflict between the Pakistani army and militant forces for stability to return to the region.

Like all communities that have experienced an extended period of conflict, the two years of violence have left a lasting impact on the people of Swat; skirmishes and armed operations may be over, but the memories linger on.

To mark The International Day for Peace, a group of Active Citizens from Swat organized a soccer match on September 23 2011 with the collaboration of CYAAD, a partner organization of the British Council. The chairman of the Swat Aman Committee (The Swat Committee for Peace) and other members of the peace committee also participated in the event.

The match was played in the Kabal Ground, in an area that used to be a stronghold of militants during the ‘occupation’ of Swat. In a way this was a statement by the Active Citizens group that the era of violence in Swat is over.

The football match was a welcome change for the people of Swat. More than 1,000 people were in attendance to cheer on the two teams. Besides entertaining the crowd, the match served as a way to highlight the fact that the young people of the region desired peace, and that they want to play their part to avoid and to resolve conflict.

Monday, January 23, 2012

From darkness to the light

‘Nai Roshni’ can be literally translated as ‘New Light’. This is the name of Adnan Jabbar’s Social Action Project. Adnan’s project is based on two parts, but the underlying theme is the same: highlighting acts of violence and educating people about the causes of aggression, and the consequences of violent acts.

The first part of the Social Action Project highlighted acts of violence against women. The group specifically chose to address the heinous act of acid attacks. According to the group, there are 399 new acid burn victims every five months in Punjab alone. Acid throwing incidents make up 5% – 7% of all violent crime in the region.

Flyers about these incidents and the need for their prevention were printed. The flyers were distributed by the group members amongst the residents of their neighbourhoods and to the local population.

With the help of the faculty and students of the Multan College of Arts the group organised an arts competition. The competition was a success, with participants turning in paintings and graphical renderings of the damaging and irreversible effects of the crime.

The group members also organized and participated in a theatrical performance of a play they wrote about an acid burn victim. The play opened at a local shelter for homeless women.

Adnan and his group members did not limit their Social Action Project to the city, but also visited a near-by village to get their message across. They organized awareness sessions in which they talked about the importance of curbing such incidents. 17 – 18 heads of households publically promised that they would not engage in acts of violence against women, and would promote non-violence. To show their support to the group they hung signs on their front doors which read: ‘This is a violence free village’.

Next on the group’s agenda was Police brutality, specifically incidents of torture by the Police. The group organized two workshops to which they invited officers from the city Police. The workshop was attended by a few officials, including the Superintendent of Police, and a Jailer. The motive of the group members was to hold a frank dialogue with the Police to come up with ways to reduce incidents of violence in Police custody.

According to Adnan, there was some progress made in these workshops but some participants also responded in a defensive and negative manner. Reducing violent behaviour is a process, and admitting and accepting fault is the first step. Adnan feels that before violence can be curbed, the causes of violent action need to be examined too. One phrase that he likes to repeat at these workshops is: ‘You are all victims of frustration’.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Drink pure, live more

According to a study conducted by UNICEF, 60 percent to 80 percent of all patients in Pakistan suffer from waterborne diseases. Officials at the Nishtar Hospital in Multan estimate the number of patients in the hospital suffering from infections caused by contaminated water to be 70 percent to 80 percent. The quality of water in the city and surrounding areas has further deteriorated since the floods of 2010.

A group of Active Citizens from Multan took it upon themselves to help make the quality of drinking water better in their city and advocate for the need for clean drinking water in their community. They named their group Passion Youth Group and their Social Action Project was titled ‘Drink Pure and Live More’.

The group started their Social Action Project with three objectives in mind: to provide awareness about the consequences of consuming impure water and to encourage people to drink clean water, analysis of water samples, and conservation of water. They visited a nearby slum where people usually drank tap water, or collected water from a near-by brook. The group members visited residents of the area, talked to them about the dangers of impure drinking water, and distributed around 200 flyers. A noteworthy fact is that even though a water filtration plant was located not too far from the area, people still did not bother to collect water from there.

The members of the group collected samples of drinking water from the area. The water samples were then tested at a local Water and Sanitation Association (WASA) laboratory. They also held meetings with doctors at the Nishtar Hospital to gather more information on water-borne diseases.

According to the group members, their efforts were appreciated and supported by WASA officials and the local doctors. Officials of WASA went so far as to assure the group that they would test 200 water samples free of cost.

Money was pooled together and water filtration equipment was bought and installed at one of the group member’s house, who did not live too far from the impoverished area of the city. Residents of the slum were then invited by the group to collect water from here, free of cost. According to Azeem Siddiqui, a founding member of the group, the make-shift filtration plant caters to around 200 – 300 people per week.

Awareness sessions about the dangers of consuming impure drinking water, and conservation of water were also organized by the group at local schools and universities. Says Azeem: “with the passage of time rapid population growth, urbanization, and unsustainable water consumption by the agricultural and industrial sectors have placed immense stress on our water reservoirs”.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Technology for all

There is no doubting the fact that internet access is a key contributory factor to the progress of any country. This is particularly true for developing nations like Pakistan. Statistically speaking, internet usage in Pakistan is on the rise and there are no signs of it declining.

One stumbling block however is the availability of computers and facilities where people can browse the World Wide Web. Places that provide this facility for a fee in commonly referred to as ‘internet cafés’ in Pakistan. Internet cafés are mostly limited to urban centres and are frequented by people who do not have access to high-speed internet at home.

Internet cafés in the more conservative areas of Pakistan cater exclusively to the male population. Even in cities and larger towns, women frequenting internet cafés is considered a rare occurrence.

Sumaya Ibrahim lives in Quetta and has been running the ‘Amozgha Centre’ for some time now. The centre is popular among the women of the community, who attend the sewing classes that are taught there.

Quetta is a conservative city where women and men using the same internet cafés is frowned upon. Sumaya felt that one thing her city lacked was a place where women from the community could explore opportunities to become better equipped at use computers and to use the internet. She envisioned setting up an internet café inside the Amozgha Centre where computer literacy classes could also be taught.

Sumaya formed a youth group which she named ‘Amozgha Youth Group’ to raise funds for her project. The group reached out to affluent people of the community for financial support. The response they got was overwhelmingly positive. The group was successful in raising enough money to purchase our computers and one printer; and so the Computer Literacy and Internet Cafe for Females was established.

This is not merely an internet café for women, but it also functions as a learning centre where basic computer courses are taught to women. The centre is geared towards women who do not have a computer at home and cannot afford computer literacy courses. Classes were offered at a nominal fee. Special consideration was shown to members of the Hazaara community – a traditionally underprivileged group. Members of the Hazaara community are offered free of cost computer literacy classes at the centre.

The venture proved to be a popular one and soon Sumaya was faced with another predicament: how to accommodate all the applicants into computer literacy classes? Presently a two hour computer literacy class is taught every day and women are encouraged to make use of the internet café in the evening. The strong turnout is a source of encouragement to the youth group: “I would love to buy more computers in order to accommodate more people” says Sumaya.

The computer literacy centre and internet cafe provides the women of Quetta with a safe environment where they can learn together, and is a welcome addition to other skills taught at the Amozgha Centre.