Saira Zaidi does not fit into the gender image of Pakistan as it emerges from the recently-released UNDP’s Human Development Report 2010. This ranks the country as 112th out of the 119 states given a ranking. The UNDP describes gender inequality as a barrier to development. Statistics also confirm the existence of this barrier in Pakistan.
But Zaidi is an exception. Hers has been a valiant struggle to help women overcome adversity. Following the Chinese dictum of teaching a person fishing rather than giving him fish to eat, Zaidi has adopted the strategy of helping women to help themselves.
I first met Saira Zaidi when I was visiting the Korangi Academy, a school for underprivileged children. On the outskirts of Karachi, Korangi technically qualifies as an urban centre but it contains islands of underdevelopment that lack all the utilities that one takes for granted in a modern society. The Academy is designed to serve the children of the adjoining eight Goths (villages) with a population of 200,000.
The school has the Infaq Education and Training Centre attached to it and Zaidi is heading IETC. But she has not restricted herself to teaching pedagogy to young women who then go on to teach children in schools all over the city. In the last eight years 487 young women have benefited from Zaidi’s programmes. Her mission is to help the women of the Goths to lift themselves out of the morass of poverty and oppression they are mired in.
Her efforts have started paying off. Her community development project enables Zaidi to reach out to the women in the Goths where literacy is low (estimated to be ranging between 18 to 25 per cent with a very small ratio being women).
A visit to the Goths is an eye-opener. Just a few kilometres away from the hub of civilisation lives humanity that is untouched by the march of progress. Lacking potable water and sanitation, the Goths have unpaved and narrow streets, some with sewers overflowing and garbage littered around. I saw some children playing around who should have been in school.
The homes I visited were small and dingy, but they were neat. One could see that living conditions were crowded as families are traditionally large, seven/eight children being the norm. This is one of the challenges Zaidi and her seven counsellors face in their community work. Family planning is a sensitive issue. Yet she talks about it but subtly. She now feels she is making an impact. The marriage age of girls has gone up by several years. An additional factor could also be the new phenomenon of girls going to school and taking up jobs.
Another change that Zaidi feels is taking place is the willingness of women to take control of their lives to empower themselves when they can. They are trying to move out of the shadows of their men folk many of whom are drug addicts and do not work for a living. With Zaidi’s help and encouragement young teacher trainees from the Goths have opened home schools for young children. Fourteen of them are now operating and 2250 children have been their beneficiaries since 2003. Of these 1601 went on to join regular schools.
Another success story Zaidi is proud of is the budget resource group. Set up by three teachers and six students of the IETC this was launched as a pilot project to teach basic mathematics and budgeting skills to women who do not even recognise the various denominations of currency bills. After three weeks of training the group moved to the home of one of the members. It has now become a nucleus for women’s collective activities.
‘Immediate results have been heartening,’ Zaidi says. The housewives of the community who participated in the initial course found their lives transformed. ‘They have become money wise and can now manage their monthly household budgets independently and also deal with shopkeepers, who previously exploited their ignorance by over-charging them,’ Zaidi remarks.
She feels that this project has become a catalyst for change. It shows that women from the community – the most oppressed lot at the bottom of the heap – can improve their lives thanks to one woman who showed them the way. But Zaidi would be happier when she finds that she has created the critical mass necessary for the women of the Goths to continue the work that has been started without outside intervention.
Pictures Courtesy IETC.