“We don’t give up on anyone”

December 18, 2022

The News on Sunday spoke to Dr Shahida Noumani, founder of Shauoor Welfare Organisation on her philosophy of social work. Excerpts:

“We don’t give up on anyone”


he News on Sunday (TNS): Your organisation was registered in 2005. When did you begin social work?

Dr Shahida Noumani (SN): I believe that I have always been a social worker. When I was in the eighth grade, I had to choose between humanities and sciences. I already knew I wanted to be a social worker. I was very sensitive towards impoverished or poverty-stricken people. My master’s and PhD were in social work, too. I have been in the field since the early ’90s. In 2005, following the massive earthquake in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and northern Pakistan, I registered the Shauoor Welfare Trust. However, the work had started much earlier. My thesis was about the Karachi Central Jail. I had worked on issues faced by women in the jail. That was around 1994.

TNS: At that time, Karachi was a hotbed of ethnic conflict. Did this affect the prisoners? How did you manage to work in such a situation?

SN: Security was a serious issue in Karachi those days. For around a year and a half, I would spend entire days at the jail. I’d be there from morning till evening. The jail administration was pressuring me to censor my findings. I’ll share an example with you. I came across two girls from rural Sindh who were trafficked into Karachi and were scooped up by the authorities. They were accused of being Indian spies. The girls were innocent and illiterate. They couldn’t even write their names. There is much cruelty in our society, but the struggle [to provide relief] continues. I started working in the field in the early ’90s but felt the need to register the organisation in 2005.

TNS: Many people feel that it is best to perform social work on an individual level. Others, however, consider registering a social work organisation necessary. What made you register Shauoor after having already worked for so long?

SN: The great thing about Pakistan I’ve noticed is that people actually step in once the state fails to meet their needs. So on an individual level, e.g. in Ramazan or the tradition of Zakat, this goes on among neighbours, along various social connections. But when you want to work on a large scale in an organised way, you have to adopt a professional and scientific approach to social work. That is different from what the ordinary person does, which is closer to charity. It has its own significance, but what we do is different.

Our model at Shauoor is holistic, multifaceted and rehabilitative. Social work is a problem-solving process. It has nothing to do with class, gender or ethnicity. Professional social workers will intersectionally solve social problems. This kind of social work isn’t about helping some individual per se. We want to make people capable of helping themselves. We don’t want to create a society dependent on charity; we want people to stand on their own feet. Our main projects are Kafalat (sponsorship) and Khud Kafalat (self-sufficiency).

“We don’t give up on anyone”

TNS: Tell us more about these programmes.

DSN: Under our Kafalat programme, we help widows, people with mental health conditions who end up on the streets and single women lacking a source of income. Our second major project is Khud Kafalat. In the former programme, we help people directly, but we aim to gradually move them into the latter project, where we support their journey to self-sufficiency.

TNS: Where does the state belong in these situations?

SN: The way I see it, social work has three pillars; and those aren’t equal. The responsibility for the foundation rests with the government. You can take a look at the Western world, they have welfare and laws that protect people to the extent that private social work is not as necessary. The second pillar is the social work sector and the third, the general population. Take a look at my organisation. We can care for maybe 200 or 300 orphans. But we have rehabilitated more than 400 orphans we picked up from the streets and returned them to their families. This is a much better outcome in my opinion. This shows that if we mobilise the general population to take action and own the destitute, to rehabilitate them, it will make a much bigger difference than any amount of charity can. That’s why we try to rehabilitate people within their social settings. It can be a family issue, a financial crisis, anything. There has to be a social welfare system.

“We don’t give up on anyone”

We want to make people capable of helping themselves. We don’t want to create a society dependent on charity; we want people to stand on their own feet. Our main projects are Kafalat (sponsorship) and Khud Kafalat (self-sufficiency).

TNS: How does your philosophy apply to the rehabilitation of child labourers?

SN: If you visit our office, you’ll notice that there are many child labourers working as trash pickers in the area. Also nearby on McLeod Road there are many children working in workshops and begging for alms. When we started our child labour rehabilitation project, we focused on children who had worked as trash pickers. Many of those children were migrants from Northern Areas and south Punjab. They wouldn’t have a place to sleep. We visited the children in the evening. They would rest and eat in the same trash heaps. We started by giving them food. Eventually, we motivated them to make time and started teaching them English, basic math and things like the importance of washing their hands after work. It was difficult to separate them from their work but we followed the philosophy of Shauoor and worked to improve their lives in a sustainable way.

In one case, a shop owner used to lock a child labourer in the shop overnight to save on paying him transport expenses. This was horrible. The shop didn’t even have a bathroom. We encouraged the family of the child to recall him. Eventually, we bought the family a French fry set-up to encourage them to pull the child out of the abusive situation. It worked. Under Khud Kafalat scheme we have rehabilitated child labourers, abandoned senior citizens, people with depression, addicts and other vulnerable people.

TNS: How do you rehabilitate children who have already been working for several years and given up education?

“We don’t give up on anyone”

SN: Such children cannot be given formal education. We have to educate them informally. There was a child, I remember, who had been kidnapped from Afghanistan and brought here. He was 15 or 16 years old, and he used to harm himself. We educated him and eventually got him admitted at a Child Protection Bureau shelter. He fled the place following some incidents that I can’t go into. We are still helping him. We don’t give up on anyone. There are many people like that and we are persisting with them. Some of them are addicted to substance abuse.

TNS: Torrential rains and floods this year have caused widespread devastation, with many lives lost and countless people left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Sindh and Balochistan have been hit the hardest. What are you doing about the people still waiting for support and resources to help them recover?

SN: I first worked with the flood affected in 2008. The disaster then was on a limited scale and not comparable to the current crisis. I have just returned from a visit to Sindh. It had been completely destroyed. I failed to understand how things could go back to the way they were. The water is still there in some places. People’s dwellings were literally under water. Many people were living in what had turned into a swamp. I was afraid that people would be interested and enthusiastic initially but once media coverage died down, the enthusiasm would go away too. But I am undeterred. We will continue working on flood relief. We participated in local katcheris and sat with locals. Some people found it awkward that a woman was leading the discussion.

“We don’t give up on anyone”

TNS: What kind of opposition or challenges have you faced in the flood relief work? Did somebody try to stop you?

SN: We have faced a lot of opposition. Let me tell you something I’ve learned. If you do something good, someone will try to stop you; otherwise, you aren’t doing good. I’ve been stopped many times. Recently, on my trip to Sindh, I set up a medical relief camp and a flood relief camp in a rural district in Sindh. The area fell under the influence of some wadera. His people showed up at our camp, and told us to pack everything up and leave. Otherwise, they said, they would call the police, who would use force. I did not care for their threats. I told them, we were there to help the people and were giving them medicines. We were doing no wrong. They just responded: this is our land, leave. Wherever we went, we encountered people asking us to leave. The wadera’s people tried to get us to hand over our supplies to them. On the face of it, they wanted to distribute the relief themselves and get credit for it. Who knows if they would even bother to do that and not sell the things off? I threatened them back. I told them they could bring the police or even their landlord boss, but I would not move the camp. Importantly, we mobilised the locals around us. We asked them why their landlord would deny them medical assistance. They were the ones who in the end chased the goons away. This is about shauoor. Once the locals were mobilised, we spent the rest of the day there.

The interviewer is a member of staff

“We don’t give up on anyone”