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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Knocking down walls

Salman Uqali is a resident of Maqli, Thatta. The housing community he lives in is located in the better part of the city. One disturbing trend that Salman noticed though was his neighbour’s practice of encroaching on public land. Soon this practice of building illegal encroachments spread throughout the neighbourhood; the city authorities too did not take much notice of this illegal activity.

The two lane road of Salman’s street was soon turned into a one lane road because of structures raised on one side of it. These included extensions to drive ways, and in some cases boundary walls of houses too covered part of the road.

Not only did this cause inconvenience for motorists and pedestrians it was dangerous as well. Another effect of the encroachments was that they drove down property prices of the housing community.

It was apparent to Salman that this illegal activity had to be stopped – starting with this own house. Salman’s house’s boundaries to extended over into the city’s land but he convinced his family to remove the illegal construction.

Deciding to have all illegal encroachments removed from his neighbourhood Salman began researching Thatta’s zoning laws and paid regular visits to offices of the local authorities.
Because of Salman’s persistence the illegal encroachments were soon removed from his neighbourhood and the road passing through his street is being repaired and will once again have two lanes.

The rewards of education

Sadaf Javeed is a resident of village Dehri Maira located in a remote area of Abbottabad. Mos t people of the village live below the poverty line and live without basic amenities. The major source of income of the villagers is farming and raising livestock.

The literacy rate is also low with a 55% educated male population literacy rates amongst female as low as 20%. The low female literacy rate can be attributed to a scarcity of education facilities that cater to female students in the area or close to it. The nearest middle and high school are located about 17 kilometers from village.

Although lacking in education, the female members of the community are very hard workers and contribute equally if not more in the day-to-day tasks ranging from raising crops and daily chores. According to Sadaf even though women make huge contributions to the community they still feel unappreciated and think that they are excluded from the decision making process by the men.

Sadaf believes that one way to empower women and give them confidence is to offer them opportunities to educate themselves regardless of their age. Education not only helps women recognize their rights and become independent, but also increases their capacity to make larger contributions to their families and the society at large.

This is especially true for mothers. An educated mother can take care of her children and family in a better way. She can provide better guidance, be a better role model, and be more aware of her child’s health. An educated mother also places a higher priority on ensuring a good quality education for her children.

Sadaf decided to hold adult literacy classes at her own home. She invited the village women to attend these basic education classes. The women embraced this opportunity to learn but they faced resistance from their male family members: it was a difficult task in some cases to convince men that the women would spend time allotted previously to work and chores to attend classes.

In a bid to win the support of the male members of the village Sadaf, her mother, and aunt organized groups of women to hold discussions with male heads of families of the village about the importance of education at any age and to convince them to let the women of their household to attend the adult literacy classes.

Sadaf’s adult literacy centre started off with 10 members which has steadily risen to 28 members. Sadaf also reached out to different NGOs and government organizations and was able to secure free of cost books and stationary items for her literacy centre.

Teaching did not prove a hard task for Sadaf who has impressive credentials with a bachelors of arts in education and a masters of arts in Political Science. She did have to be very patient with women who could not read or write at all. To reach students such as this Sadaf adopted a visual style of teaching: she uses cutouts of letters and numbers, and pictures of places and animals to make learning a fun and interactive process.

For Sadaf the reward for her hard work and patience is the new-found confidence in her students and the ways in which education has made their lives easier and richer.

Back to life

Back to Life is a Social Action Project started by young Active Citizens from Lahore. And they could not have chosen a more apt title for the project. This group of young individuals chose to work in an area that is often overlooked by others: young children suffering from various stages of cancer. It takes a certain amount of empathy to think about and feel for ill children – tucked away in some ward of a hospital, out of sight, but not out of reach.

The young people who decided to work with these children are mostly students or young professionals. But they decided to take time out from their busy schedules and break their normal routines because they felt that children are important…and unoriginal as it may sound, the truth is that children are the future – suffering from a terminal disease or not.

The Children’s Hospital in Lahore has an entire wing dedicated to an oncology ward which is divided into sections corresponding roughly to the ages of the children that it houses. The group of young people wanted to cheer up these children and replace their boredom with fun and educational activities – what one group member, Usman refers to as ‘Edutainment’ – a combination of education and entertainment; and so they decided to tailor their activities according to the ages of the children.

For the younger children the group plays cartoons and animated films that are projected on the walls of their ward. According to another group member the children wait all week for the weekend when they get to watch cartoons, and laugh, applaud, and cheer together. For these children the group members were able to secure colouring books and colouring pencils free of cost from different NGOs as well.

The older, more mature children proved to be more of a challenge for the group, but they were able to capture their attention through regular visits. The group members not only tutor the kids in material that other children their age learn in school, but do it in such a fun and engaging manner that a bond has formed between them.

The connections that these young Active Citizens and hospitalized children have formed also has a down side: the group members have to accept the fact that the children they are working with are being treated for different forms of cancer – which is a potentially fatal disease. According to one member of the group sometimes they come to the hospital only to find out that a child has passed away; this can be a jarring lesson in the facts of life for the sick and healthy alike. But what keeps them going is the knowledge that for however short a time they have succeeded in bringing joy and laughter in the life of a child.

A second chance for mothers

Providing opportunities for education to young mothers has a two-fold effect: an adult has a second chance to get an education that they could not when they were younger, and secondly young mothers are more likely to raise educated children. Educated mothers also have the option of educating their children at home if they cannot afford the tuition fee or other expenses that are associated with sending a child to school.

The main reason that young girls don’t attend school is their family’s poor economic condition. Additionally, when a poor family is faced with a choice between sending a boy or a girl to school, more often than not they will opt for educating the male child.

A Social Action Project (SAP) named Steps Against Illiteracy was started in an impoverished area of Karachi to fund a school providing classes to young mothers and their children at a cost as low as possible, and sometimes free of cost for especially deserving students. The school is called “The Citizens Foundation School” and offers classes three days a week in the morning and afternoon.

Some of the goals of the school are to enable the students to write and read basic Urdu and English, and to be able to perform calculations for day-to-day tasks such as shopping and planning the household budget.

The school is meant to run for three months. In this time its students will not only gain knowledge that can be applied to daily tasks but will also give them the background and confidence to apply to a “proper” school. The Citizens Foundation School may be a short-term venture but its benefits may very well last for a long time.

Helping the helpless

How often have we walked or driven by the slums near our neighbourhoods and turned our heads away, pretending that we can’t see the suffering of the dwellers? The answer would be: countless. Tooba Hassan is an Active Citizen who chose not to ignore the miserable conditions of slums. She launched ‘Crystal Future’, a Social Action Project seeking to bring about a positive change in the lives of the less fortunate.

Having identified a slum area by the name of ‘Baykah Saeeda’ in F-11, Tooba decided to take its barely functioning school under her wing. The school was in a dilapidated condition with one teacher to cater to 50 students, no roof and an obsolete syllabus. Tooba introduced printed material and activities using Oxford workbooks to make learning a more interesting experience for the children. She also managed to raise funds from friends and relatives for a temporary roof. Her prime focus, however, was developing the children’s soft skills and moral values – an area of personal development most people ignore. Tooba worked to enhance the students’ reading and writing skills, build their confidence, teach them about hygiene and cleanliness and create awareness about social issues such as domestic violence.

When asked why she volunteered spending time in the slum school, Tooba said: “We wanted to help the slum kids become good citizens. If they acquire education, it’ll be easier for them to earn a respectable living”.

Tooba’s biggest challenge has been getting individuals and organizations on board to support her cause. Many NGOs are not interested in helping out unless their work is publicized, a sad reality Tooba discovered when she contacted some organizations to provide counselling for victims of sexual abuse.

Her motivation to keep going comes from the change she sees in the area she has adopted. The children, who once had an air of dejection surrounding them, are now active and engaged members of the community. For Tooba, there can be no better reward.

Blogging down barriers

Originally from Baluchistan, with a Sindhi name, and a resident of South Punjab, Momal knows first-hand the advantages of diversity. In her view diversity adds value to a community and should be celebrated. But not everyone in Pakistan is as open to diversity as Momal. The major shortcoming is the lack of networking between and socializing of people belonging to different cultural, financial and political backgrounds. This lack of communication leads to stereotyping within different communities.

Keeping the growing popularity of the internet in mind, Momal started researching internet marketing to provide a platform for young people from diverse backgrounds to network, share ideas and build trust. She formed a group with a group of friends and together they laid the framework for a blogging website which she named The Voice of Youth (tVoY).

During this period Momal and her friends also took part in an Active Citizens Training. According to Momal, after completing her training she took a renewed interest in her website. She now approached the online community as a Social Action Project which enabled the users – who were from different areas of Pakistan – to share their thoughts with one another on one platform.
Soon tVoY turned into an online community mostly populated by students from different parts of the country. It gives users a forum to express and discuss their opinions about different issues, and is helping them in increasing their exposure to new ideas and removing old stereotypes.

Momal goes on to say that initially when a controversial topic was brought up, people put forward their opinions in a forceful manner and at times conflict arose. Gradually with moderation from the tVoY team this behaviour declined. Community members are now much more respectful of each other’s opinions and participate in dialogue rather than arguing.
As the users of the websites grew so did the tVoY team. Talented individuals from different regions of Pakistan now work together to promote the acceptance and celebration of diversity.
Momal believes the future of Pakistan lies in the hands of young people as according to one report, 66% of the total population is less than 30 years old. She aspires for tVoY to act as a forum that helps harness the true potential of Pakistan’s young people. This SAP is a result of her motivation to give back to the community.

Regardless of limited resources and facing various obstacles, the tVoY team is using their passion for internet marketing to benefit young people all over Pakistan.

Tipu Sultan Public School

Pakistan’s public school system is in a shambles. Not enough public schools exist in the country and when the public is provided with a government-funded school, the quality of education provided isn’t always up to the mark. The Rizwana Group decided to start a primary school in Sahiwal that would provide education to out of school children of the community. The school is named the “Tipu Sultan Public School” and offers classes from preparatory to the fifth grade.
Tipu Sultan Public School is not just a run of the mill school; it focuses on providing a quality education to all students. Traditional rote-learning methods have been abandoned in favor of teaching students basic concepts and providing them with a clearer understanding of the material.

The group launched an awareness campaign about out of school children and the benefits of educating them. Thanks to their efforts the group was able to attract a considerable number of volunteers to participate in the project. Presently all the teachers are volunteers. The group also raises funds to provide as many free books and school bags to needy children as possible.
The children attending the school come from a diverse background. The students vary from children whose parents can afford to pay for their education to children whose parents do not have the money to put them through primary school. With 150 children enrolled the school provides education completely free of cost to 15 of them.

One key goal accomplished by the group members was convincing parents who had never sent their children to a school before, to enroll their children in the Tipu Sultan Public School. Most of the children that attend the school have never attended school before. Luckily their first school happens to be run by a group of people who view providing education not as a job, but as a responsibility.

Traditions that need to be defied

Progress can be defined in a number of ways, but some that come to mind immediately are: moving forward, adapting to circumstances, and evolving. It is surprising then that the way we teach children in primary schools and what they are taught have remained more or less unchanged over the years. This lack of progress is what motivated a youth group in Multan to start a Social Action Project (SAP) to help rectify the problem.

The group is named The Janbaz Youth Group and their SAP aims to correct education at its very root – primary school. The SAP was conceived and is being led by Noshaba who is a trained psychologist. The group holds the view that the only way to move forward is to motivate children to do better in school and keep them interested in the material being taught. A key contributing factor to this is implementing a fun and interesting way of teaching in primary schools.

So far the group has managed to arrange four training sessions for primary school teachers focussing on modern teaching methods and techniques. These sessions were attended by 28 teachers in all. Typical areas of discussion in these training sessions are traditional teaching methods that are still being implemented in primary schools and their limitations, and advantages of adopting modern teaching methods.

Progress can be defined in a number of ways, and one of them is being brave enough to challenge established conventions when there is a better way to do some thing. The SAP started by The Janbaz Youth Group does just this – it is a step taken by a group of young people to replace inefficient and dated teaching methods with newer and better ones, it is a step in the right direction; it is a step towards progress.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Trafficking in safety

The Peshawar based social action group ‘Shaoor’ is a traffic safety awareness group founded by Sapna Hayat who along with her friends attended the Active Citizens training at Dost Welfare Foundation.

Traffic safety was chosen by the group for their Social Action Project because they were deeply moved by the death of a guard who worked at their university, by a speeding car. Shaoor realised something needed to be done regarding the traffic of their city, Peshawar.

They launched an awareness campaign for which they designed and printed posters and stickers about traffic rules and road safety. These posters and stickers were printed in English, Urdu and the local language Pashto.

The group members visited bus stops and talked to the drivers and passengers about observing traffic laws and driving safely. They also visited various universities where they conducted workshop session as part of their awareness campaign.

An Indian organization helped Shaoor with their work shops and is still collaborating with them by sharing their experiences and ideas. Today Shaoor has 15 active members and100 volunteers.

A polio-free Pakistan: turning the dream into reality

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polio eradication drives in Pakistan can be very challenging endeavours. Approaching marginalised groups in remote areas of the country is a hard enough task, but perhaps the biggest challenge for anti-polio Health Workers is overcoming the cultural and social challenges peculiar to these communities.

Sikandar Khan is an Active Citizen and an Active Citizens training facilitator. Sikandar and his youth group, Movement for Rural Development Organization (MRDO) shared their experience of working for polio awareness and eradication with a rural community with us. Sikandar and his group members are from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), a conservative region of Pakistan. The group selected a village in a remote area of KPK to launch their Social Action Project.

According to Sikandar, communities in this region are particularly tight-knit. Like all tight-knit communities, they are not very open to advances by strangers. Although members of these communities are known for their warmth and hospitability, it does take them a little time to start trusting people who are not community members.

A major hurdle faced by the group was changing opinions and attitudes of the community members formed because of misconceptions about the polio vaccination campaign. One popular myth about the campaign is that the polio vaccine causes infertility and sterility. The group members organised awareness sessions with the village elders and faith leaders to address these misconceptions and highlighted the need for vaccinating young children.

The outcome of these sessions was very favourable for the group’s project. Most of the elders and faith leaders were successfully persuaded to convince the community members to have their children vaccinated.

The group also enlisted the help of Lady Health Workers (LHW) to administer the vaccine to the children – as all male health worker teams are generally mistrusted by conservative communities in Pakistan. Ultimately 39 families out of 54 had their children vaccinated against polio.

MRDO now plans to return to the village to try and convince the remaining 15 families to get their children vaccinated against the disease.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fencing out danger

Naveed is an Active Citizen from Quetta. He lives in STN housing community – just off Spinny Road. This area has a high crime rate, specifically theft. The robberies follow a fixed pattern: they take place late at night when most of the residents of the housing scheme are asleep. So far these incidents have been violence free.

The community is constructed such that it has a single entrance big enough for one vehicle to pass through. A rocky road leads up to this entrance. There was talk of carpeting the road once, and construction began; soon afterwards though all construction ceased.

Naveed reached the conclusion that the best bet for a crime-free neighbourhood would be to install a gate at the entrance of the housing community. Furthermore, this gate should be guarded by a watchman.

An idea had been born, but now came the hard part: how to turn this idea for a secure neighbourhood into a reality? Naveed made use of the community and leadership skills that he had learned in his Active Citizens training and reached out to the community members. He pointed out the natural advantage that a single entrance into the housing scheme offered them. Since there was a single point of entry, taking measures to guard it offered the simplest solution.

He also pointed out the increased rate of robberies in their neighbourhood: the most glaring examples were the theft of a motorbike and a family whose house had been robbed. Within their community also resided a member who had been unemployed for a while. Naveed suggested him as the candidate for the job of the watchman.

He argued that if this person were employed as the watchman, an unfortunate member of their community would be in a position to earn a living again because of his community’s help. At the same time he would be giving to the community his time and services. In this way an idea could be turned into a self-sustaining Social Action Project.

To Naveed’s delight the community embraced his idea and elected a committee of residents to oversee the project. A collection was started for purchasing materials for construction of the gate and to pay the hired labourers. Everyone pitched in some money and soon supporting structures for the gate were in place.

But not everyone was happy with these developments. One night some people tried to knock down the gate-posts but were chased away by disgruntled residents who awoke because of the noise. A surprising but welcome ‘side effect’ of this Social Action Project was that once the construction of the gate started, construction of the road leading to the gate was restarted by the local authorities.

At the time I visited Naveed, the gate project was in its final phase. Naveed and his neighbours seemed to be in high spirits and were optimistic about the security that the gate would provide them and their families.

Youth group shines in Umerkot

Environmental pollution is a problem that the citizens of Umerkot have long since been plagued with. Shine Active Youth Group decided that enough was enough. They started a social action project to spread awareness about the dangers of living in a polluted atmosphere and to take steps to minimize environmental pollution. They concentrated mainly on the lack of green spaces in the city, and inadequate sanitation facilities.

Since Umerkot has a very high illiteracy rate, the group members made a conscious effort to personally interact with the members of the community as much as possible, and to explain their cause to them and the dangers of living in a polluted environment. Shine Active Youth Group held meetings with community members to get the message about their cause across and to gather more support for it. They also distributed pamphlets in an effort to reach out to people whom they did not get a chance to meet.

The group also presented their idea for planting more trees and plants to local and international NGOs, and were provided with plants and saplings by them. About a hundred plants and saplings were planted – mostly in girls’ schools which lacked greenery by members of the group. Two community members with entrepreneurial leanings were also talked into starting a nursery in the city with their personal funds.

The group members also reached out to the women of the community and made an effort to educate them about disposing of trash in a safe and sanitary manner, and not out in the open in their street.

The Tehsil Municipal Administration (TMA) was also approached, and the group successfully campaigned for the removal of five rubbish heaps from the city limits. The issue of two blocked drainage pipes was also successfully resolved. The TMA was also persuaded to place rubbish bins at specific locations from where the city dump trucks could collect the waste and dispose of it properly.

Monday, March 26, 2012

High hopes

Rizwan and his sister Aseya are residents of Bangyal – a village on the outskirts of Islamabad. At first glance Bangyal is no different from any of the other numerous villages and towns surrounding Islamabad. Sadly the residents of this particular village also face similar problems as those faced by residents of other villages: poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment, and education.

There are no government run schools for children in Bangyal. The closest school run by an NGO is at a distance of 7 – 8 kms from the Bangyal community.

Rizwan, like all unemployed young men of his community looked for a job wherever possible. But his case is a little complicated: Rizwan and his sister suffer from a degenerative bone disorder – a condition that has progressively worsened over the years.

Among the various offices visited by Rizwan visited in hopes of finding employment was the office of Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP) – a local NGO and an Active Citizens partner. When the Active Citizens programme began STEP offered him a place on the training programme. As a consequence of this training he resolved to do something for his community: to set up a school for the children of Bangyal.

This brought Rizwan to the next question: how would he fund the school? Rizwan received help for the initial funding from other participants from the Active Citizens training that he had attended. Rizwan along with 30 volunteers (mostly from high school and university students) collected scrap and sold it for recycling. Within a period of a few months this group of motivated young people managed to raise nearly Rs. 50,000.

This money enabled Rizwan to start his dream project but he still needed funds to buy school supplies and books. For this he approached a number of NGOs and commercial organizations. For his troubles he was rewarded with some financial help, school supplies like a whiteboard and books; an organisation also had a bathroom constructed in the school.

Among the people approached by Rizwan was a multinational Pakistani organization with headquarters in the UAE. This organisation provided Rizwan with funds to start a shop of motorcycle parts.

The shop now set up and running generates a modest profit which Rizwan uses to pay for the expenses for the school and provides him and his family with a meagre salary.

But Rizwan’s journey is not complete yet; talking about his goals Rizwan says: “(some day) I want to turn this school into a university”.

Working together for a greener city

Sonia is an Active citizen from Bahawalpur who felt the acute shortage of greenery in her city. She decided to start a Social Action Project in her community with an aim to get people from her community involved in working for a city with more trees, plants, and flowers.

Her group took their message to various schools of the area. Sonia holds the view that: “It is a teacher’s duty to spread awareness about the importance of plants to the students”. The group members talked to students and teachers about the importance of green spaces in cities.

Activities were also held in school gardens in which the group members demonstrated to the students and teachers how to plant and nurture different types of seeds and plants. Information about plants and their uses in day-to-day life was shared among the teachers and students. Questions by the participants were also answered by the group members.

In the words of Sonia’s group: “Our Social Action Project was a success and we think that we were able to achieve our goal – which was to make our little learners aware of the importance of growing and taking care of plants”.

Old papers, new votes, and a ragged school

The Gulberg Rangers (G-Rangers) has six active members and is headed by Zunaria Earl West. The British Council’s Active Citizens training enabled them to initiate three Social Action Projects (SAPs) which focus on the poverty stricken areas of Lahore. They started three SAPs: Ragged School, Voting Awareness and Raddi (paper) Collection and Rehabilitation.

The Ragged School focuses on primary education teaching; beginner’s English, Urdu and Mathematics are taught to children who cannot afford to go to school. The children are also taught ethical and moral behaviour as well as civic lessons such as how to cross the road safely, not to litter, etc.

Voting Awareness aims is to educate individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote for the candidate of their choice. Volunteers and members visit neighbourhoods and contact 200 – 300 homes a month. They encourage citizens to use their votes wisely and not to “sell” them for money.

The Raddi Collection and Rehabilitation project was conceived with the help of Formation Awareness and Community Empowerment Society (FACES) to increase the sustainability of their SAPs. The G- Rangers go door-to-door collecting cardboard and newspapers to sell. In this way they help the community dispose of unneeded material in an appropriate way and generate funding for their other Social Action Projects.

Young blood drives change

Natural calamities can rarely be predicted; in fact the only thing certain about a natural disaster is the uncertainty. Since the when and where of a natural disaster can at best be only guessed, it is in every community’s interest to be as well prepared as possible to cope with it if and when it occurs.

In the past few years Pakistan has experienced the devastation that natural disasters like earthquakes and floods bring with them. We have learnt to appreciate the value of responding to emergencies efficiently, and the consequences of not delivering rescue services in a timely manner.

Bearing this in mind, three Active Citizens from Bahawalpur organized a one day blood collection drive. They named their social action group “Umeed” – an Urdu word, which can be loosely translated to “hope”. According to the group members – Ashar, Sumera, and Arooj, instead of totally relying on foreign aid in the event of a calamity, efforts should be made to develop a culture of volunteering and self-help.

In keeping with the spirit of collectivism – the driving philosophy behind the social action project, the group was successful in persuading health care professionals including doctors and nurses to devote some of their time and be a part of the blood drive.

In their bid to spread awareness among young people, the group along with other volunteers visited campuses of various local universities and colleges where they presented their idea to the students and staff, and were able to attract a number of donors.

Although their project was a small one, and the quantity of blood collected was not huge, but thanks to the efforts of the Umeed social action group, the chances of finding blood for an urgent transfusion in Bahawalpur have got better.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Three sisters, one goal

Advised by the NGO FACES to attend an Active Citizens training in 2010, three sisters, Rabia, Shazia, and Aseya Mola realised that they could give back to the community through the gift of teaching. Two of the sisters, Rabia and Shazia set up the Emmanuel Silai (sewing) Centre for needy women. The courses taught at the centre cover darning, sewing, embroidery, and design.

The motivation behind the sewing centre was that by providing vocational training to young girls and women, they can be taught the necessary skills to earn an independent living. The sisters believe that being skilled in a certain area enables individuals to face trying times with confidence and hope.

Since the women being trained at the sewing centre can barely afford one meal a day, buying items such as sewing machines, cloth, and supplies like thread and needles is inconceivable. Currently 17 women and girls attend the training. A portion of the income from a boutique Rabia and Shazia run is used to finance the sewing centre.

Aseya Mola is also doing her bit to give back to her community. As the only sister who is educated, she is running a free education centre for illiterate and poor women. According to Aseya, the reason behind starting an educational institution for women is that many places exist where young boys and men can seek an education, but such institutions are virtually non-existent for older women.

Says Aseya: “Many children in our community are uneducated who spend their time playing and running errands for others. Education is very important for such young children as it helps mould their personalities and is a beneficial asset for their bright futures. We want to serve the community by equipping the children with education”.
Presently 100 students are enrolled in the school with an approximate breakdown of 50 young girls and 50 women. The students are taught English, Urdu, Mathematics, Home Economics, and religious studies. Aseya goes on to say: “we are hoping our endeavours will bring a desirable change in our communities soon and more children will be inclined towards receiving education”.

Running free vocational and educational centres are challenging tasks, but Shazia, Rabia and Aseya have managed to get by without any external funding or volunteers to help them. As a result of their efforts they have gained acclaim and trust within their community.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Making a difference

After attending a four-day Active Citizens training workshop, Maria Zia was motivated to put into action a desire she had long held – to clean up parts of her city, Rawalpindi, and educate the community about the importance of controlling environmental pollution. ‘Ao Pindi Chamkain’ (Let’s Clean Up Pindi) is the award-winning social action project initiated by Maria.

Her team of twelve students meets regularly at the Commercial Market Park and divides into groups of 2 or 3. These groups spread out to different areas nearby, armed with garbage disposal bags and dustbins. They pick up litter and talk to residents along the way, in the hope of inspiring them with their spirit of community participation.

There has been a marked improvement in the environment of the neighbourhoods that Maria’s group regularly visits. Residents who were initially sceptical about the commitment of these youngsters have acknowledged their contributions and have pledged to carry forward their work. Work which, rewarding though it may be, is not without its difficulties. The most serious one is a lack of finances. Since the members of the group are all students, they are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the costs of transportation and materials.

Maria hopes that residents will now start pitching in to provide financial support and ensure the long-term sustainability of her project.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Computers for change

The dismal state of the education sector in Pakistan is a well-established fact. Perhaps that is why the majority of Social Action Projects focus on improving access to learning. Dr Saif-ur-Rehman is an Active Citizen whose Social Action Project Projects, Learning, Leading aims to support the existing learning environment.

Dr. Rehman is well aware that the education sector is plagued by major issues such as a lack of functioning schools, ineffective government policies and gender discrimination. However, he believes that starting small and improving the current facilities will play a big role in increasing school attendance.

With help from his three team members, Dr. Rehman set about to collect funds for two computer labs in the underprivileged localities of Karachi. The first one, located in Karim Nagar, was launched in 2010 and has eight computer stations. The second one, located in Gulzar-e-Rahim and launched this year, comprises twenty computer stations. Computer courses and training programmes are offered at a nominal fee (Rs.100-150) at both centres and they operate from 9am to 10pm daily, with students gathering outside in long queues to avail the services.

Technology can make learning fun and Dr. Rehman is of the opinion that if children from less privileged communities have access to computers, their entire outlook to learning, and to life, will change. Not only will it improve their performance in schools, it will enable them to learn basic skills that can enhance their earning potential.

Currently, the project is overseeing the construction of a Resource Centre, which will house a computer lab, a library and a reading room. With books, newspapers, magazines and a variety of other resource material, it will be a healthy alternative for youngsters who are normally found loitering in the streets.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Talking the talk and walking the walk

The communication gap between people who subscribe to different faiths, come from different cultures, and belong to different social classes can be a major hurdle for young people who want to interact with each other, explore other cultures, and learn about different religions. Young people living in rural areas are especially aware of the fact that they don’t have a platform to communicate and consequently remove misconceptions and move closer.

Youth for Peace is a group of Active Citizens from Bahawalpur who started a Social Action Project (SAP) to promote interfaith harmony. According to the group members, they felt that they had to play their part in enabling young people of their area to overcome social barriers and reach out to one another. In their own words: “we are trying our level best to provide a platform for people who really don’t know about different religions and cultures. Due to our efforts and hard work we have found some success in promoting interfaith harmony among different religions and cultures”.

To promote their cause the group organized a “peace walk” for the students of their city. The group visited different schools and presented their views on interfaith harmony. They were successful in convincing officials and students from different schools to take part in the peace walk.

A dialogue between different groups within the community was also organized by Youth for Peace. The purpose of the dialogue was to bring together community members from different religions under one roof, where they could talk with one another candidly and openly.
Through the dialogue the group also managed to remove certain misconceptions about their SAP. According to a group member, one point stressed time and again by Youth for Peace was: “Interfaith harmony does not mean the adoption of customs and traditions of other religions but it really means that we should not view other religions with prejudice and should respect them whole heartedly”.

Thanks to the efforts of these Active Citizens members of different social groups got a chance to sit down together and talk in a way they had not before. Hopefully they learned something new about one another along the way and some left with the realization that no matter how different people are, they still have a lot in common.

Empowerment through entrepreneurship

The majority of women in Pakistan do not have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Illiteracy and cultural constraints keep them for standing up for their civil, political, legal and economic rights. Recognising this, a group of students from the University of Peshawar initiated a social action project to empower women through entrepreneurship. The aim of the project is to provide rural women with opportunities to utilise their skills and creativity which in turn, will give them the freedom to improve their financial condition. Moreover they wanted to ensure equal opportunities for the women of their community, and to create a space where they can utilize their skills and creativity.

The group comprises of students of Peshawar University who met at an Active Citizens training workshop organised by the Institute of Social Work, Sociology & Gender Studies. They named their group the Youth Promotion Social Development and chose to work in Nowshera, a flood-affected district where women are at a greater disadvantage: having lost their homes, their possessions and all semblance of a normal life. Working with the rural women they came to the realization that most of them were illiterate; neither had they received any vocational training which would have enabled them to generate income.

The active citizens organised a workshop where, as a first step towards building confidence, the rural women were encouraged to speak out about the problems they faced in their day-to-day lives, their dreams and their ambitions. The second phase of the workshop was a training session of ten days, during which 25 women were taught how to make hand bags, wall hangings, embroidered pieces and bangles.

Once the training was completed, the group organised an exhibition to introduce, promote and market the work among the general public. The group hopes to develop this model into a successful enterprise and use the funds generated from the sales to improve the condition of the women in Nowshera.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Grave issues

The members of Konain youth group are from a small village in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and the Social Action Project started by them is unique in that it tries to tackle a problem shared by both the dead and the living: shortage of land for graveyards.

The village has two graveyards. When the group launched their Social Action Project, neither of the graveyards had a proper boundary wall, and some of the graves were unmarked. Both graveyards had been severely neglected – no focused effort to maintain them had been made for more than 40 years. The sites of both graveyards were over-run by weeds, and residents of the village dumped their rubbish in parts of the graveyards as well.

Because of the ill-defined boundaries, sometimes residents of the village buried their dead relatives on other residents’ private property – either knowingly or by mistake. This became such a contentious issue that it sparked incidents of confrontation; mostly verbal, and sometimes violent.

The Konain youth group is made up of five male members and three female members. They appealed to the community to help them clean up the grave-yards. According to a female group member, initially their pleas fell on deaf ears, but when the village people saw the female members engaging in manual labour, they quickly joined the group members to lend a hand.

The group along with the help of the community members picked the trash and got rid of weeds and overgrown grass; this helped greatly in exposing the unmarked grave mounds. After the clean-up phase, the group members analyzed both graveyards for space. They concluded that one graveyard was entirely full, while the other still had room for new graves.

The group members put up a fence around the full graveyard and convinced the community members to help them raise a wall around the second graveyard. The community members have hired two grounds men to maintain both graveyards and have started a fund to pay their wages.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Get up, stand up

Ghotki is a district of Sindh with a population of more than 970,000 and a very low literacy rate – estimated to be 29% for men and just 11% for women. Most schools of the area lack proper libraries and recreational facilities like playgrounds for students. The children and young people who are enrolled in schools are unaware of most of their rights and entitlements as students.

The Ghotki Active Youth Group was formed by young Active Citizens who wanted to improve the way schools are run in their community. The group reached out mainly to secondary school and high school students and talked to them about their rights and what they can do to demand them in a proper manner.

Some of the issues faced by the young people of the district highlighted by the group were a lack of learning and recreational facilities, a lack of higher education bodies, absence of a youth forum, the need for more coordination, networking between the young people of the district, and a lack of counseling services for young people – educational or otherwise. The denial of the rights to access to information and freedom of expression is also a source of concern.

Student rights awareness sessions were conducted in four schools by the group. About 200 students were reached by the group during the course of their campaign. A speech competition was also arranged which gave students a platform to voice their grievances with the school management and to make their demands known.

To ensure that student rights are safeguarded in different schools, the group members also helped organize a student youth group in a local high school and provided training to its members.

Funds for the group’s activities mainly come from donations from group members. Additional funds are raised through sponsorship from local businesses. In all, the group members were successful in raising about Rs.22, 000 to finance their awareness campaign.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

All together now

A group of young people studying in a Madrassah in Azad Kashmir decided to start a Social Action Project to promote understanding between people belonging to different sects. The members of the group felt that only through understanding each other better can people get along better.

After attending the Active Citizens training offered in their area they formed a group which they named “The Reformers”. Being affiliated with a religious institute they assumed that interfaith harmony would be an issue they could easily address, but in reality they found their task a very complicated one.

According to a group member Muhammad Bilal Yaqoob, to translate their vision in to positive action they discussed their idea not only with their friends, colleagues, parents but also with members of the community they did not know very well.

A series of meetings were organized by the group where ulemas (religious leaders) belonging to different sects could come together and hold talks in a relaxed and open atmosphere. These dialogues were dubbed the “friendly, peace lovers harmony meetings” by the group. The group hoped to convince the faith leaders participating in the dialogue to work together to promote peace and harmony. The Reformers also hoped to convince them to not use abusive and inflammatory language against other sects in their sermons.

The endeavours of The Reformers were appreciated by the ulemas and community members. But perhaps the biggest reward for the group was that the ulemas who attended these meetings agreed to make a conscious effort to be more tolerant of others’ beliefs and pledged to avoid using harsh words against other faiths and sects as well. The meetings concluded on a happy note and all the participants joined hands to make a “human chain” – a universal symbol of unity.

After these meetings an event was organized by the group where ulemas from different sects addressed the community members and stressed on the importance of promoting interfaith harmony and to combat violence with tolerance and to create peace in the community.

The members of the group are planning to continue their religious education and to take their message of understanding and peace to other parts of the country.