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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Education at all costs

It takes 45 minutes to get to Soban Gali from Abbotabad city. The road ends where the hills get too rocky, and from there Samina Mumtaz’s house is a 5 minutes hike. Like all typical villages this is a close-knit community where traditional roles for men and women have been defined generations ago. Samina has lived here all her life.

According to Samina: “women (of the village) are considered to be a burden on their families and are mainly seen in the role of housewives. Women are restricted to their homes and education is not considered necessary for women”. Growing up in this rural setting Samina experienced this gender bias first hand.

Despite these obstacles Samina never for one moment felt inferior to any one in any way. As Samina puts it, her struggles and achievements are a testament to the fact that what a man can do a woman also do.

Being the driven individual she is Samina soon found her way to an Active Citizens capacity building workshop in Abbotabad organized by the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) – an Active Citizens partner. Among other things the four day training focused on areas that Samina was interested in such as gender sensitivity, and dialogue. On completion of her training Samina’s desire to work voluntarily for the betterment of her society found a new focus and direction.

With renewed energy Samina plunged into her pet project: a free school for the village children. For a few years now Samina had taught a few children of the village in a room of her house. Now she resolved to increase the number of her students and make their learning experience as fulfilling as possible.

There are no private or public schools within 10 Km of Soban Gali; parents have two options: either let their children walk for miles unattended or not send them to school. They usually choose the latter.

For Samina education has a special significance. She not only views education as an essential asset for all children but also sees it as a tool to empower women of her community in the long run – by not only educating them but also changing the mentality of the male residents of the village education and hence decreasing the gender bias prevalent in her community.

In the Active Citizens training programme Samina along with other participants explored dialogue and how powerful well thought out and executed dialogue could be. It was now time to put her learning to the test. She started a door-to-door campaign in her village to meet parents and discuss the importance of education with them, and encourage them to send their children to her school. She also developed links with another local NGO who promised to provide her with books and stationary for free.

Soon Samina saw the number of her students increase to 63. Out of these 63 students 35 are girls and 28 are boys. But it was not all smooth sailing; Samina faced resistance from some corners of the society who saw her as an agent of change. In their opinion Samina was trying to destroy the cultural norms and values of their society.

Another attitude prevalent in Samina’s community is the reliance on aid by donor agencies and NGOs. A large number of the village residents hold the view that being poor entitles them to monetary aid. Samina faced stiff opposition from this segment of the community as well.

Undeterred Samina carries on her mission to provide free and quality education. She views this as her responsibility towards the children of her village. She hopes that one day the situation of other communities and ultimately that of Pakistan will be improved by providing education to all segments of the society, and that progress will come through a participatory and self-reliant approach.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Where there is a will there is a way

Shahzeb Shah lives in Mirpur Bhatoro, a small town of District Thaatta in Sindh. The education rate of Mirpur Bhatoro unfortunately has never been high and most the residents of the area live in poverty and below the poverty line in some cases. Most families make ends meet usually through partaking in agricultural activities.

Shahzeb is one of the fortunate ones who had access to education growing up in Mirpur Bhatoro. As a matter of fact his mother is the principal of the town’s only public school. Growing up in an educationalist household Shahzeb was quick to notice that even with an educational facility present people still hesitated to send their children to school.

After attending the Active Citizens training offered by the British Council through a local partner Sindh Radiant Organization (SRO) Shahzeb decided to investigate this matter further and ultimately take steps to improve the state of education in his town.

With the help of other young people Shahzeb went door-to-door to investigate whether children of local households were receiving an education – and if not, what was preventing them?

Soon this group of Active Citizens discovered that parents who were usually reluctant to send their children to school headed families that lived in abject poverty. Their children usually helped them with household chores, worked odd jobs, and sometimes even begged from passers-by on the streets to bring some change home.

With great effort and patience they convinced parents of out-of-school children to send their children to school free of cost.

After conducting this initial research Shahzeb and his friends started the second phase of the project: they convinced Shahzeb’s mother to let them use the school’s facilities to offer free classes to out-of-school children. It did not take much effort to convince her and the arrangement reached was that Shahzeb and his group members could use two class-rooms in the evening when regular classes were over to offer free lessons to deserving children.

Soon the free tuition centre was up and running and the two class-rooms were brimming with children. Shahzeb and his friends pool in their funds to buy books and supplies for the school.
Nearly 80 children attend the free tuition centre, out of which 50 are girls. Besides providing lessons in basic English, Urdu, Sindhi, and Maths Shahzeb’s groups also concentrates on character building classes and providing awareness about hygiene.

Shahzeb and his youth group have made a point of making learning fun for their students. Children are encouraged to indulge in physical exercise when not in class. In fact learning in a safe and enjoyable environment and being coached in sports like cricket and football are some of the things that children look forward to each night when they go back home. And the satisfaction of making learning an enjoyable experience is what makes Shahzeb and his friends continue teaching at the free tuition centre.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reflections on peace in Quetta

Quetta is a city of Pakistan that makes the news from time to time. Unfortunately, most of the news is bad. Kidnappings, targeted killings, suicide bombings, and a simmering separatist movement are not anything new to the people of Quetta; they have seen it all.

The largest province by area, Balochistan just by its geographic placement is a very sensitive and critical area of Pakistan: it shares its south-west border with Iran and its western border with Afghanistan. Adding further instability to the region is the different and diverse mix of ethnic groups inhabiting the province.

Last week I found myself in Quetta after a long time on an official trip. The purpose of the trip was to oversee a film shoot for an upcoming Active Citizens documentary. I visited a number of places where our film crew shot footage of ongoing Social Action Projects, but what I would like to write about today are my observations of a few activities organised for the promotion of peace in the city.

Our local partner organization, the College of Youth Activism and Development (CYAAD) helped organise these activities in Mariabad, an area of the city populated by members of the Hazara community. The Hazara people form a minority in Quetta, and of late targeted killings of Hazaras have shook their entire community to the core. Some people term these killings the work of extremist elements; others term it as systematic ethnic cleansing. When I asked people from different areas of Quetta why they thought the Hazara people were being murdered, and by whom, they could not offer a motive either. The fact remains thought that people are being killed in Quetta – Hazara, and members of other ethnic groups as well.

The first part of the day’s activities was a peace walk to the local graveyard from the city centre. A group of young people from all over the city, comprising of various ethnic groups participated in the walk. It was very encouraging to see young adults and children holding up placards and banners with messages of peaceful coexistence printed on them.

It was a brisk winter day with clear, sunny skies – perfect weather to be outside. Reaching the graveyard, the participants of the walk offered prayers for the dead and hung messages of peace written on coloured paper from a tree in the graveyard. We then made our way back to the city where a workshop on conflict resolution was arranged in a vocational and technical institute.
The workshop was headed by Ms. Najeeba Saeed of CYAAD. Najeeba is a well respected resident of the city because of her long association with the development sector. Her main expertise lies in study of conflict and the resolution of conflict.

Najeeba talked about two major groups in any conflict: one which has something to gain from the conflict, and the other group which wants to resolve the conflict.

She went on to say that people who live in one area of Quetta feel that visiting another area of the city is not advisable; this is the wrong way to think. This city belongs to all the residents of Quetta; staying in one particular area and not venturing out of it only divides the community.

Listening to Najeeba talk about divisions within a community, I could not help but think that this concept could easily be extended from a community’s perspective to a larger one: which encapsulates an entire country. In a way we have adopted a similar mind-set of creating our particular safe zones, and in the process we have isolated other areas of the country and the people living in them. Quetta is one such place.

Balochistan’s provincial minister for quality education, Mr. Jan Ali Changezi was also in attendance. When asked to offer a few words on the occasion, he quoted the following excerpt from the speech that legendary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz delivered in Moscow when he took the stage to receive the Lenin Peace Prize: “I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will after all be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred, and cruelty”.

It is true that conflict exists in Quetta, but it won’t be resolved by looking away from it. Nor will it be resolved by rushing into dialogue without a well thought out plan. We have to focus instead on understanding the underlying issues that are causing tension, we have to try and understand the sensibilities of the different ethnic groups that make up the population of Balohistan. We have to work towards a peaceful, and safer Quetta, and consequently a more stable Balochistan. We have to do this by well thought out and sustained engagement; not by adopting a policy of avoidance or escalation.