The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
My last article in these pages, ‘Contextualising rural development’ (May 8, 2020), was a critical review of mainstream literature on rural transformation which for the most part was predicated upon the politics of green revolution.
In continuation to that article I wanted to write on the evolution of participatory rural development in Pakistan. But in the meantime, I came across an important perspective which can be a sort of prelude to a piece on participatory rural development.
This perspective came from some underprivileged women of rural Sindh during my telephonic interviews with them as part of my field research for a forthcoming book on rural transformation. Hence, this article is a summary of those grassroots’ voices which do not generally find an audience in our development policy.
In my career as a development professional I have never had a more lucid explanation of empowerment and socioeconomic transformation than the way these complex ideas were unpacked by a poor rural woman in a remote village of Shikarpur in Sindh.
I had posed rather an irritably vague question to her, asking her: ‘do you feel any empowerment after being enrolled with the rural support programme offered by the Sindh Rural Support Organization (SRSO) in your area?’ Before she could start responding to my question, I posed another question: ‘how is the meagre support extended through RSPs going to transform the lives of poor women in your village?’
To my utter surprise, in this uneducated rural woman’s response I could sense a kind of spark and confidence which is hard to find even amongst urbane, educated, ambitious and highly qualified professionals. She started by posing a counter-question: ‘don’t you feel I have no fear of speaking with an outsider and a stranger and don’t you see my husband is sitting here but he does not have any issue with me speaking with you?’ ‘Our village has been part of a conservative tribal system and we were not allowed to speak with any stranger just a few years ago. How all this has happened must be an element of surprise to someone like yourself living in a luxurious urban life’. I had no reasons to disagree with her.
In the beginning, when I was framing my questions I was a bit confused over whether or not these poor rural women would understand my questions. I wanted to engage a senior professional from the SRSO to simplify my questions and translate them to rural women. The SRSO staff was so confident that they suggested that I interact with the rural women directly to get the best answers. And they were right because when I started to get responses from the rural women I immediately also started to regret my ignorance.
Like me there are many researchers, journalists, academicians and even development practitioners out there whose thinking of rural development is marred by urbane perspectives and arcane development theories. I advise them to interact with these rural women at least once to get their perspectives right.
The role of rural development programmes in empowering the poor cannot be explained better than how a poor woman of Union Council Khandu of District Qamber Shahdadkot did. The views she expressed are ‘the collective voice of the poor women in rural Sindh’ she puts. My 30-minute discussion with her opened up new vistas of wisdom and every word she uttered made more sense about the objective of rural development than a dozen academic books on the subject could do.
The perspective of rural transformation that she offered was not her individual viewpoint; it was something shared by every poor rural woman who was part of the rural support programmes across Sindh. My interaction with other rural women provided similar perspectives which can never be known by reading a far removed academic book on rural development. Here is a summary of what she said:
‘We are not magicians, we are not jugglers but we do simple things and do them consistently. Success lies in simplicity, consistency and the ability to trust our own potential. When I saw a confident woman speaking to our men and admonishing them for their attitude towards women of our village, I was impressed and shocked as it was the first time in my life that I had seen a frail girl asking our men to change their attitude. I could only wish to be like her but it was not that easy. How could I admonish my man for all that he does?
‘At that time he used to do many things that I did not like. He used to get drunk, smoke cigarettes and spend on himself most of whatever he earned as a laborer. When I look back and think of those days I cannot believe that I was that submissive. Things started to change for me and most of the women of my village when that girl continued to visit our village and she could convince our men to hold meetings with all the women of my village.
‘In the first meeting we posed some questions about the purpose of her visit and about admonishing our men without fear. This girl responded only in one sentence: ‘if you want to be like me you must be organized then’. That sentence was so powerful that we started to ask a number of questions about how to be organized. In a few meetings we were able to form our organization at village level.’
‘We continued to meet regularly and our men were happy too because by being organized we were able to access resources from the SRSO initially and then from the local government. The journey continued and now we are not only better off but also vocal about the issues of our village. The timely support of 12,000 rupees was not just a meagre support; it was the beginning of our transformation. It was not money alone, it was the process and our consistent efforts to stick to the principles of rural development’.
I was a bit curious and asked: what are those principles that you followed? The answer was simple: ‘organization of the poor, requisite skills, capital formation and perseverance. We followed all these and now we are empowered, transformed but our journey does not end here. It is just the beginning.’
From my discussions with these empowered rural women I can sense that Sindh is undergoing a real transformation at the grassroots level. Many people may not see it but what I have seen happening is not ordinary development work; there is a movement of change unfolding in Sindh.
Investments in rural support programmes by the Sindh government have had long-term returns in empowering rural women. Policymakers in Pakistan must visit these community institutions and I bet their perspectives will be changed radically. It is time to invest in rural development through these community institutions to build a prosperous and inclusive Pakistan.
In the days of Covid-19 induced crisis, provincial governments must utilize these community-based institutions created by RSPs across Pakistan for awareness raising, distribution of Ehsaas emergency cash and other initiatives to make our collective fight against Covid-19 more effective.
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