Thursday November 30, 2023

Journey from plight to prosperity: Part-I

April 27, 2018

My previous article, ‘Recipe for rural development’ published in these pages on April 20, discussed the transformative potential of the Sindh government’s Union Council Based Poverty Reduction Program (UCBPRP). In this article, I will try to encapsulate the story of a rural woman’s journey from plight to prosperity. This journey of transformation is an eye-opening account of the impact of the collaborative work carried out by the Sindh government and the rural support programmes (RSPs) initiated through the UCBPRP. It is also the story of resilience; perseverance; and the enormous potential of finding liberation from poverty through participatory development.

Nawab Khatoon, a 38-year-old woman who was born and raised in the Abad village of District Shikarpur, is the eldest among 11 siblings – nine sisters and two brothers. She had a pernicious childhood plagued with extreme poverty that was aggravated by her father’s illness. Her frail mother put herself through exploitative wage labour on a local landlord’s farm to earn a living. Nawab never had chance to attend school and was forced to learn how to stitch rillis and parandas to help her parents feed their large family.

Nawab’s story of exploitation, wretchedness and oppression represents the struggle of most rural women in a patriarchal society. When she was young, Nawab’s paternal uncle visited her parents and asked her father to help him find a wife in the village. “My father visited some of his friends in the village to find…a girl for my uncle,” Nawab says. “My father arranged his [brother’s] marriage, but the girl’s father agreed on the condition that one of my father’s daughters will marry him. To honour his brother’s wishes, my father [decided] to marry [me off to] the old man. Such arranged marriages are common here”.

“I got married to that old man who already had a wife, three daughters and a son,” she continues. “I was sacrificed by my father in order to fulfil his brother’s wish. I started my married life with this family in a straw hut. The family did not own any land; they either used to go to the bushes to defecate or used a neighbour’s bathroom.

“I spent most of my time helping my husband’s [other wife with] household chores and collecting water from a shared tap in the village. It took almost an hour to collect a single bucket of water as all the households in the neighbourhood shared the same tap. My husband had to [go from] house to house to collect milk and to sell it in Sukkur city. His income was not sufficient for the family and the bulk of what he earned was consumed in gambling.

“I gave birth to seven children: five daughters and two sons who could not be sent to school as my husband’s health started to deteriorate when I gave birth to [my] seventh child. Gradually, he became frail and could not continue [working]. We could not afford his treatment and he became bed-ridden. We had no choice but to beg for food from fellow villagers to keep body and soul together. I could stitch clothes, but I did not have enough money to buy the necessary inputs.

“One day, we had visitors in our village from an NGO who wanted to meet with women [and] help them. I went to meet them, despite resistance from villagers, [in] the hope [of finding] a way out from this debilitating poverty. The NGO team told me to convince women in the village to form a group as a precondition of support.

“I convinced my neighbours to meet them and 18 village women attended the first meeting with the NGO team. We were then asked to form a women’s community organisation in the neighbourhood and to elect a leader. As [expected], our men opposed the idea as a scam by some urban swindlers. The NGO team continued its effort and we were finally able to [persuade] men in the village and formed the first-ever women’s organisation of the village. We were taught organisational ethics; village development planning; and negotiation skills with the outsiders.

“Each member of the organisation was trained to prepare a micro-investment plan (MIP) for their household. [Under this plan], each household identified one income-generating activity that they could undertake themselves. Initially, 11 members received community investment funds from the NGO.

“In 2009, I received community investment fund [through a] loan of Rs14,000. With this money, I bought clothes from a wholesaler in Shikarpur. I opened a shop at my home in the village. I bought clothes for Rs600 per suit and sold it for between Rs650 and Rs750. This way, I earned the profit of between Rs50 and Rs150 per suit. I saved this profit in the [bank] account of our organisation and was able to return the loan to the organisation within six months.

“In 2010, I received another loan of Rs14,000. By adding my savings to this amount, I bought more clothes from the wholesaler. I repaid the loan by selling clothes to village women and saved the profits in the account of our organisation. I received my third loan of Rs15,000 in 2011 and invested this money to extend my clothes business. I returned the loan within [a] year. I had enough money to spend on [my husband’s] treatment and [he] recovered from his illness and started [working again]. My son also established [a] street-vending enterprise and our income started to grow.”

Members of women’s organisations introduced a committee-saving scheme as an alternative method of saving money in village. The model entailed [a] contribution of Rs10,000 by each member. The cumulative amount was given to one of the committee members each month through either a draw or a mutual consensus on the basis of need.

Nawab participated in this scheme. When she got Rs90,000 in 2012 through the committee, she purchased a plot of land. With Rs35,000 from her savings, Nawab prepared the plot for construction. With a grant of Rs60,000 through the NGO’s low-cost housing scheme, Nawab constructed a three-room house. Now, she lives in this house, which has a washroom and an open veranda.

In addition to improving the living standards of her family, Nawab says that she has grown as a person. Being an active and vocal member of her organisation, she has been elected as the treasurer of the larger network of the local support organisation (LSO). Her role in community development was acknowledged and the chairman of the Mirzapur union council invited her to contest elections as a local councillor. Nawab won the election and became an elected councillor of the union council. She receives Rs7, 000 per month as honorarium.

Being a councillor, Nawab has now become a catalyst in devising realistic solutions to the rural poor and mobilising resources for the development of her people. She has built productive linkages between people and local government service agencies. Today, there is a strong network of women-led organisations in Sindh whose members have the capacity, will and confidence to articulate the local narrative of change; identify key development issues; and devise practical solutions. Nawab is a role model for other disempowered and poor women who wish to embark on the path to prosperity in our patriarchal rural structure.

The journey does not stop here. It is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to transform the lives of millions of subaltern classes in Pakistan through collaboration between the local government and community-based institutions. Nawab believes that “organisation is power”. “If people get organised and have their own organisations, then livelihoods and lives can start to improve,” she adds.

To be continued

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.