Empowerment through Literacy
By Dr Shahnaz Khan

Basti Khando is a small village in Rahim Yar Khan, where Maqsood Bibi was married at the age of fifteen. Like all young brides she had dreams of a happy married life and children. But some things are not meant to be. Her dream of having children was one of them. After 12 years of trying and hoping she remained childless. Finally under pressure she gave permission to her husband for a second marriage.
This was her way of ensuring a respectable place for herself in a very traditional society. After all it was better to put up with a second woman in her house than being divorced! Her hopes were smashed once again when, after only one year, her husband asked her to leave. She had no place to go but her brother’s home. But life had some more tests in store for her. Her sister-in-law was not too happy with this arrangement and started giving her hard time.
This is not an unusual story in Pakistan. You can find women who fit this description in any part of Pakistan. But Maqsood Bibi was determined to make it on her own. To maintain some semblance of self-respect Maqsood Bibi worked as a cotton picker to earn some money. She used that to build a small room with her brother’s assistance. She set up a small shop in that room, selling candies, stationary, and cosmetics etc to earn some pocket money.
But this project had its own challenges. Like so many girls in Pakistan, Maqsood Bibi never attended a school. She did not know how to read and write or do simple math. As a result she was unable to keep track of her earnings. At times people would ask to buy merchandize on credit. She did not want to lose customers and so she ended up obliging them. Her total lack of education translated into losing money.
She was very much aware of her handicap. So when the Human Development Foundation (HDF) started its project in her village she became actively involved in the formation of ‘Chandni Development Organization’ for women of her village. She was elected as the secretary of this Development Organization (DO). A DO is a community-based volunteer organization. HDF has over 800 such organizations all over Pakistan where people come together in meetings, discuss their problems and suggest solutions. HDF facilitates in implementing those solutions.
In one of the ‘Chandni DO’ meetings she brought up her problem for discussion. She wanted to learn to read and write. She wanted HDF to arrange for a six-month literacy course for the women in her village under its Adult Literacy Program. So members of the Chandni DO passed a resolution to this effect. HDF arranged the course for its members. During the graduation ceremony her brother remarked that his family could not imagine that attending the course will help her so much. “Just after three months she stopped asking for help in record keeping”, he said.
I met Maqsood during my recent visit to Rahim Yar Khan. She said that now she is not dependent on others for record keeping. She can track her income and expenses and can read letters, packages of merchandize etc. It has also helped her to become a better business woman. Her income has almost doubled. “I am making a profit of Rs. 2000 per month now.” she told us.
Earning Rs. 2000 ($22) per month may not sound very impressive to many of us but for a divorced woman in a small village in Pakistan, this is a giant leap forward. And this is not the end of the story. Like it happens so often, Maqsood’s enthusiasm and activism was infectious.
After attending the six-month adult literacy course these women wanted more education. They asked HDF for books. Then they made arrangements with one of the teachers in HDF Child friendly schools to teach them for two hours daily for tuition of Rs. 50 per month.
Maqsood is a living example of women’s empowerment that HDF is striving for. Preservation of human dignity, right to be productive members of the community and gender equality are some of the fundamental principals that HDF believes in. This also proves that helping people help themselves is the only sustainable way to uplift people. So HDF runs its entire program on the basis of self-help. People have to be organized and motivated for this. They have to be active participants rather than passive recipients of charity.
We believe that hunger cannot be eliminated by giving free food, health cannot be promoted by opening free clinics and we cannot get rid of poverty by giving out money. The only way to make a lasting difference is to change people’s thinking, attitude and behavior. The change has to be from within. It is a slow process. There is no instant gratification. Most of us who started Human Development Foundation will not be there to see the full impact of its work. But we know that this is the only way to help the people of Pakistan, by helping themselves.
“Allah does not change the condition of the people unless they change what is within them.” Qur’an 13:11
To learn more about HDF visit www.hdf.com


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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