The story of Nawab Khatoon published in these pages on April 27 gave an encouraging insight into the journey from plight to prosperity of a poor rural woman. It is an organic narrative of taking charge of one’s life; here the conventional sociology of meta-narratives succumbs to the intrepidity of this brave woman. This proves that the genuine narratives still hold more power than simulated realities and concocted stories created in the age of modern media.
Why do I feel the need to share these stories with my readers? Most of us may not relate to these stories experientially but these stories do tend to challenge our worldviews about poverty alleviation. They also challenge the conventions of the political economy of change and open up the possibility of a new debate on social policy.
Let us celebrate the successes of our brave women whose stories seldom reach the world. Today’s story is about Noor Bano of Village Jhando Khan Lashari in the Kashmore district.
Noor Bano was born and raised in an impoverished family with ten brothers and four sisters. Her parents did not own any land and they had to put up with a meagre income as sharecroppers. None of Noor’s siblings could attend the school because her parents could not afford educational expense.
Married at the age of 13 to a man who was 10 years older to her, Noor says: “At the time of marriage, my husband worked as a guard for the local landlord. He earned about Rs1,200 a month to feed the extended family of 20 members. We all lived in a one-room mud house, and used to have arguments over food and space. The conflict led to a split in the family and my husband set up a separate straw hut for us. However, some of the family’s assets were still shared – like a milking buffalo and a donkey.
“I had to collect water from the shared hand pump in the village. In addition to this I used to gather wood and buffalo dung as domestic fuel. I used to work in the wheat fields as well. I never had a chance to interact with my relatives and neighbours. No one in the village had time for each other”.
With no external support, this wretchedness haunted Noor and other women of this village for years. The poverty became more pronounced as more dependents added to the resource share of family members with no additional income. Food insecurity led to malnutrition and health issues among the growing children, which in turn caused an increased economic burden on the breadwinners of the household. And Noor’s unaccounted domestic labour reduced her ability to participate in decision-making at the household level.
“We were desperate for support to muddle through the ever-hardening living conditions. It was then that we came across some outsiders who wanted to help us overcome this state of poverty. These people identified themselves as representatives of an NGO that was implementing the UC Based Poverty Reduction Program (UBPRP) of the Government of Sindh.
“The outsiders first met our men for permission to meet the women of village. Since they were first allowed to meet with the elderly women of the village, I could only observe their meeting from a corner. The NGO workers wanted the women of our settlement to form an organisation as a primary condition of support. Forming a women’s organisation was an alien concept for us. It was also difficult to spare time.”
“We initially turned down almost every suggestion of the visiting team. To us it was unusual to trust a bunch of urbanised strangers. Despite the initial rejection from our side, the NGO staff continued to visit the settlement and we agreed to form an organisation when they visited us the third time.”
“The members of the newly established organisation elected a president and a manager. The NGO staff facilitated our meetings and we gradually learnt the art of holding meetings and presenting joint resolutions for local development.
“During the floods of 2010, we lost our mud houses and had to take refuge in makeshift tents where the government and NGOs provided food items and shelter until we returned to our native village. Nothing was left in the village; there was destruction everywhere. We had skin infections but we did not have money for medical check-ups.
“In 2012, a team of rural support program (RSP) conducted a survey of villagers who had lost their homes in the 2010 floods. I registered myself in the survey. The RSP provided us funds to construct a low-cost house.”
After shifting his family to this new and stable house, Noor’s husband left for Saudi Arabia to work as a labourer. According to Noor, one of her husband’s friends worked in Saudi Arabia and had managed to save a lot of money. “My husband’s friend helped him find a job in Saudi Arabia and my husband decided to leave the five of us behind. We took a loan from the landlord and managed to pool the Rs300,000 required for his travel.” In the meantime, Noor continued to attend meetings of the organisation and learnt about saving money for future use. As Noor puts it: “As my children were young and I had less household consumption, I saved the surplus money from the monthly remittances sent by my husband.”
Noor had adequate money as monthly remittance to meet her household expenditures and to retire the loan taken from the money lender. She took a loan of Rs15000 from the RSP for raising livestock in 2012. Noor added Rs15,000 from her own savings and bought a buffalo calf. She repaid the loan from her husband’s remittances.
Noor says: “It was the hardest time for me, with young children at home and husband away. He stayed abroad for two and a half years and then I asked him to return as his loan to the landlord was repaid. When he returned he was unemployed, so I sold the buffalo for Rs60,000 and bought a rickshaw with that money. Since then, my husband drives the rickshaw which has become a regular source of income for my family.”
In 2014, once again Noor applied for a loan and received Rs15,000. She added some more money from her savings and bought another buffalo calf. She was able to return the loan from her husband’s earnings. In 2016, Noor sold the buffalo calf and received another loan of Rs15,000. By pooling the money, she bought a young buffalo. She now sells the surplus milk and uses the money to bear the educational expenses of the children.
Brimming with optimism, Noor concludes her story: “Had there been no women’s organisation I would never have received such a concessionary loan. These loans helped in asset creation and diversification of income sources. Today, our lives are much better and my children eat nutritious food including vegetables, fish, chicken and cereals.”
Resilience, perseverance and entrepreneurship are not the preserves of educated and urbane women only. Noor’s story dislodges our urban myth of all rural woman being subjugated and suppressed into oblivion.
To be continued
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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