“They’ve never seen women acting like them.”

When I step out of the car a wall of heat hits me. We have just arrived in Sajjan Hakro, another village in interior Sindh, Pakistan.

After my week following Mahira around villages for PINS (see my first post for more details), I’ve moved on to working with two other interns, Rabia and Hamlata, on a research paper. We’re looking at the types of trades/jobs in each village and identifying which are missing and where SRSO could provide further skill training.  Currently, our main task consists of conducting focus group discussions and interviews in various villages in Larkana and Qamber Shahdadkot. While the others ask questions and write down answers in Sindhi, I’m left to look around.

On the ground by my feet, a little boy with Downs Syndrome hugs his mother’s legs. His mouth is covered with flies but he makes no move to brush them away. More children tumble on the rope bed in front of us; they run around, ducking under the beds, hiding behind a tree when one of the women makes to chase them away, her shoe in hand. Still so young, they’re free from the struggles of life and the shadows that hang around the older villagers’ eyes.

 

Life here is hard. Really hard. And there’s almost no escape. My previous experiences of rural living were all in Indonesia. In Flores, stunting rates were high but in a country that can harvest crops three times a year, the villagers almost always had enough food. There were primary schools in most of the villages, and better infrastructure to support education: the adult literacy rate is 95%. In Pakistan, it’s 70%. Before I came to Pakistan, my family warned me that things would be very different. They couldn’t have been more right.

In the village it’s the women that do everything. As I sit on the rope bed a woman walks past, a pail in hand – she’s going to feed the buffalo. Squatting in the corner, another woman kneads dough for chappattis. Driving along past paddy fields, it’s women I see, their clothes a bright splash of colours against the green. Mahira turns to me: “The men are sitting in ‘hotels’ drinking chai“.

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Gender inequality is a fact of life in Pakistan. In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2012, Pakistan was numbered 134 of 135 countries and labelled as one of the worst places for women in the world. This manifests itself in high rates of violence against women and a lack of representation in the workforce, politics and the law. Health and education indicators are shocking. A woman is twenty times more likely to die in childbirth in Pakistan than at home in the England.

Traditionally, in Pakistani culture, women are often expected to stay at home and look after the family and household. This patriarchal system means that women are often deprived of basic rights, particularly in rural areas. Female literacy in Pakistan is 48%; in many rural families, girls drop out of school to look after younger siblings and help their mothers with chores. Low literacy results in socioeconomic dependence and further perpetuates the patriarchal system. Malnutrition and stunting – especially bad for girls (see previous blog) – limits life opportunities still further.

And with girls and women suffering deprivation and violence, the whole community suffers. It’s been said time and time again: “if you educate one woman, you educate a nation.” I’m starting to realise how this could be true. SRSO has definitely taken these words to heart; almost all of its projects work primarily with women. In my last post, I began to explain the UCBPRP Success Program, a project which helps women set up community, village and local support organisations with the aim of alleviating poverty. Women are asked to make household plans to improve income and are given various grants/loans to get them started. By putting women in charge of these changes, you give them more respect and a voice in a society that otherwise isn’t interested in listening. There are countless success stories: women using their organisations to campaign for local landowners to pay the poorest girls dowries; women using their loans to start up small businesses; women realising that they need to make sure their children and their daughters go to school. Slowly, a change is coming.

 

But on the ground, life doesn’t quite fit with the caricatured ‘repression’ that the West envisages when thinking of Pakistan. This is partly due to the fact that I am a foreigner and normal rules do not wholly apply; but also to the fact that gender inequality varies hugely depending on social class and location.  In the big cities – Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi – girls drive around by themselves and do not even have to wear a dupatta (a scarf draped over your front to protect modesty).  Pakistan had the first female president in the Islamic World, Benazir Bhutto, and that was in 1988! There are plenty of strong female voices in business and politics, academia and art. The girls I spend all my time with, Rabia and Hamlata and Mahira, believe strongly in the importance of education and financial security. They’ve rejected marriage proposals to finish their studies. Mahira travels around Sukkur by herself in rickshaws and hangs out with male friends (“we laugh a lot so everyone knows we’re not a couple”). Yesterday we spent hours talking about relationships and boys and it felt no different to the way I talk with friends in England. In the office the other day there were more women than men sitting around the table. Things are definitely changing.

Being a woman in Pakistan is difficult. Sexism and gender inequality is deeply ingrained into the culture, even into the language. In the month that I’ve been here I haven’t seen many women on the street by themselves. When planning a trip with friends over the weekend, I was told that it would be better for us to have a boy with us. I haven’t shaken any men’s hands while I’ve been here; when there are two men sitting in the car I’ll sit in the front. It would be easy to be offended by these things, and I have to admit that there are times when I have felt stifled. But it is also important to realise that gender disparity isn’t always a reflection of thinking women are inferior; instead it’s just culture – a mix of respect for women and acknowledgement of their different roles. It’s not offensive or repressive, it’s simply the way it is.

This post has been hugely difficult to write. I wanted to explain my experiences of being a woman here, to point out that there are huge problems, but also to reaffirm that things are improving. This inspiration is all around me; in the women in the village who are taking control of their household economies, in the little girls who speak better Urdu than their mothers, in Mahira and Rabia and Hamlata and all the other women that I’ve met who are working and laughing and challenging perceptions day by day.

 

Just yesterday, I sat on the side of the road with four other female colleagues drinking chai, a sight rarely seen in rural Sindh. To our left, a huge group of men gathered. Rabia turned to me:

“They’re staring because they’ve never seen women acting like them.”

Khuda hafiz.

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