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Pakistan's Apple, Cored

MARCH 4, 2000

Welcome to Pakistan. A country most commonly heard of in newspapers and television for its international fights, namely between itself and India. And a country, since Partition in 1947, which has been struggling for stability as the world's superpower—earlier Russia and Britain, now China and the United States—battle over control of the region. With so much concentration on Pakistan's global position much of its internal affairs have been left, insha'Allah, in God's hands.

Forget about Pakistan's current military government—many Pakistanis say that not much has changed under General Musharraf in the past four months of his rule. Many agree that nothing will change in the near future or, at least, if India hasn't anything to do with it: He [Gen. Musharraf] wants to improve Pakistan's international image, yet trades blows with India. So sour are relations between the nuclear neighbors that a newspaper columnist has suggested that perhaps "someone should start counting the cities which will not see the summer of 2000." (The Economist, Feb 19-25, 2000)

So the Pakistani government keeps on like it has for the last 53 years, trying to make and keep a name for itself. But what about Pakistan's some 140 million inhabitants, over half of which lead a hand to mouth existence? Change, say the Pakistanis, must come from the people, and not depend on the help from politics. Meet Mrs Rukhsana Quayyum and Mrs Shaheen Ahmad, two ladies on the inside, both Pakistanis devoting their lives to helping Pakistanis.

Working from the inside out
It was mild afternoon when I went to meet Mrs Rukhsana in her home in central Lahore. Several ladies sat in the living room waiting to speak with her, and I said hello as I was lead past into Rukhsana's office. She, as she later told me, believes a woman's office should be her home and vice versa. Surrounded by telephones, a fax machine, piles of papers, and a bookshelf full of law books, it appeared that Rukhsana's office had indeed taken over her home. Her phones rang throughout our conversation.

Born in Lahore to a family who is known all over Pakistan and India for her father, a highly educated policeman who fought in the Great Game catching spies for Britain, Rukhsana leads the family's support for the poor. "Now I keep a low profile, working from my house and when my husband goes on trips." Previously Rukhsana had been involved with several NGOs (Non Government Organizations) and the Punjab Social Service Board, where she had her first taste of organized social work. "There are no bad people," says Rukhsana, "just poor and helpless people." And maybe because she could see this theory rooted in the boards she sat on, or because she thought she could make more of an impact on her own, Rukhsana left.

For the last few years she's been working from her office. "Charity starts from home." Says one of the little plaques on the entrance to her house. Presently she's working on several projects: supporting a home for destitute women, finding donors for a school for mentally and physically handicapped children, and providing goods for local poor to sell. In every case she has to go to people in the community and convince them to help. "I emotionally blackmail people." Says Rukhsana with a nervous laugh.

Rukhsana feels that it is her duty to help those less fortunate than herself. She has a very influential position in Pakistani society (her husband sits as a judge in the High Court of Lahore) and she uses this power willingly. When I asked her why she does the things she does she answered immediately: because of her faith. Everyone should worry about themselves first and work from there. "They should work to raise up their families and then those around them."

She has a simple belief in life: family is the base of everything. And before she took one of her phone calls she turned to me and said, "Make yourself comfortable. This is your home."

SHE makes a difference
Established in 1993 SHE (Self-Help Entrepreneur) is trying to reach out to women who are in the low-income group and are willing to enhance their learning, and so is SHE's Executive Director Shaheen Ahmad. After a long career working in various NGOs, Shaheen now heads her own.

I spent many hours talking with Shaheen; the one thing she wanted me to walk away with was that Pakistanis are not aware. "They don't know their rights. They don't know how to." With five model schools and close to 30 literacy camps a year, SHE is teaching them how.

I asked Shaheen why she does this. "I don't want sympathy," she said—her husband died after just three years of marriage. "I am better than thousands of women. And, I am working for development." And although her English may not explain her sentiment exactly her ideas are there. It was the same when I asked her what she would do if SHE did not exist. It was a concept she couldn't grasp. "Why no SHE? It is not possible." But this reaction came, not from miscommunication, from her work ethic. SHE is structured, unlike the previous organizations she worked for, so democratically that there is no room for error. "Anyone, anyone can come and look at our books, see where the money is. No one can say I am a cheater."

Shaheen also takes a non-traditional approach in the field. SHE works from the ground up. I visited a number of the model schools to see this ground building first hand. Every question I had, probing for faults and weaknesses, Shaheen knocked down. The SHE schools are built around a foundation of trust. First, a village is chosen and the women of that village are paid to go through a basic literacy camp. In this way they can see the importance of education for their children and still be earning money for their families. "They must be seeing the value at every step." Says Shaheen. Then local women, almost exclusively young, unmarried girls, who have an interest, are taken through a teacher-training course. Once this is all set the children are enrolled, and pay a total of 0.50$ US a month for supplies. "I tell the families that they used to have buffalo, now they have tractors." Life is changing and education will make it better for them. So they pay, and the children learn.

Many of the schools are flooded with students, putting a big demand on supplies and space. I asked Shaheen what the future would bring. In terms of SHE Shaheen was very positive. Plans for further growth are in motion and several other regions of Pakistan are getting involved. But, for the state of the country, Shaheen sees it as rotten. "Big money coming in from outside support only causes corruption and continues this cycle. We don't need money. Money funds personalities, buys them cars and a certain lifestyle." The recent State of the World's Children 2000 report put out by UNICEF declared that Pakistan's literacy rate had climbed from 41% for men and 14% for women in 1980 to 54/24 respectfully in 1995. "Our literacy rate must be around 15% right now." Says Shaheen, letting the numbers speak for themselves. Change is only going to come from the inside. For a country that hasn't even had a national census taken since 1990, there's a lot of work to be done.

Before Shaheen goes back to her work she leaves me with this: "Society says this. Society says that. But you are society. You make society." And she stepped back inside her office.

Over the years many foreign powers have grazed through Pakistan leaving behind bits of their systems to mingle with the existing structure. Even good intentions are misused due to a lack of cultural understanding. In the introduction to UNICEF's report Carol Bellamy states,

"The number of people living in poverty continues to grow as globalization—one of the 20th century's most powerfully economic phenomenon—proceeds along its inherently asymmetrical course: expanding markets across national boundaries and increasing the incomes of a relative few while further strangling the lives of those without the resources to be investors or the capabilities to benefit from the global culture."

And even if UNICEF adds to this global separation it is at least halfway on the road to correct it by acknowledging the problem. One thing is sure, it will take more people like Rukhsana and Shaheen, working from their homes and offices, to keep Pakistan's apple from rotting altogether

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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