In feudal Sindh, Zohra Bibi challenges status quo


Being a woman in the northern districts of Sindh – notorious for being the hub of tribal and feudal lords – is not an easy thing.
Most of them are not allowed to roam freely or take active part in politics or social work.
These districts are home to the infamous bandits of former dictator Ziaul Haq’s rule and the majority of the province’s women, who fall victim to honour killing or karo-kari. The small village of Chaho Labano of the Wazirabad union council in the Shikarpur district could be counted as one of the most dangerous villages for women.
But Zohra Bibi, a resident of this village who comes from a poor family and was forced to stay illiterate her entire life, struggled to set an example for the women of these districts by becoming the Florence Nightingale of the development sector.
Sandwiched between the villages of Mahar sardars (chieftains) and Jatoi sardars, two very powerful tribes of the area, is her village of Chaho Labano.
Until a few years ago, she could not have even imagined that she would one day stand tall and become a community leader in her village. But today, she is the leader of 22 community organisations (COs) comprising 323 women from the nearby areas.
A few months ago, Zohra had received an invitation from the Rural Support Programme Network to attend the Local Support Organisation (LSO) Convention in Islamabad along with other activists from all across Pakistan. For the first time in her life, she was travelling out of the district and that too by an airplane.
“During the convention, I met the wife of an elected representative of my area and when I introduced myself, she was shocked and surprised,” recalled Zohra.
Zohra briefed her about how she had organised the women of her village and was going to participate in a convention where female participants from different areas of the country were coming to share their experiences.
“The lady was very impressed with my simplicity, devotion, courage and commitment to my cause. I invited her to visit my village, and with her support, I have now organised the villages of the Mahar and Jatoi tribes,” said Zohra. This was her first step in organising the women of these areas, where being a woman is nothing less than a crime.
The attitude and behaviour of the Mahar and Jatoi communities towards her kin has also changed. She has taken all the responsibilities of her village on her shoulders.
A young boy of her village was killed during a cattle robbery. She persuaded the Village Organisation (VO) to set up a community-based security system for their village.
It was decided that six posts around the village would be established where three male volunteers would be deployed at each post. The villagers and their cattle and other valuables are safer now because of the initiative of Zohra.
Zohra then turned her focus towards education. The only school in the village was not properly functioning. The VO arranged for the teaching staff and now the school is functional.
Many such stories are emerging every day from the northern part of Sindh where women are commonly treated as sub-humans. They are killed in the name of honour for even speaking to a man not related to them.
But things have started changing. With the support of the provincial government, the Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO) has organised 267,544 women into 15,630 COs clustered into 5,294 VOs and federated into 41 LSOs in three districts of northern Sindh under the Union Council-Based Poverty Reduction Programme (UCBPRP).
Their level of confidence and dynamism in terms of leadership and involvement in self and community development and improvement has to be seen to be believed.
At the newly opened outlet of the products of the COs in Sukkur Bazaar, when someone asked the women present there who their manager was, they received the response: “What manager? We are the managers! We manage our shops!”
The UCBPRP was first initiated in the Shikarpur and Kandhkot-Kashmore districts, and after analysing the performance in these districts, the provincial government initiated this programme in the Jacobabad district in June 2010.
The programme aims at improving the quality of life of the rural communities, especially of the poorest of the poor, through the conceptual package of social mobilisation, organising them into “organisations of the poor” at community, village and union council levels.
In the beginning, the SRSO conducted the Poverty Score Card exercise in 166 union councils of these three districts to identify the poor and the poorest.
As all these women have no experience of conducting meetings, record-keeping or maintaining registers of their proceedings and accounts, training for capacity-building of the office-bearers of the COs, VOs and LSOs is one of the components of this programme because these organisations cannot effectively function without that.
Some 153,189 members of various COs, 35,496 of VOs and 371 of LSOs, as well as their office-bearers are trained in management and record keeping of Community Investment Fund (CIF).
These organisations have not only empowered the most neglected section of the society – women – but also made positive impacts on the social fabric of the society.
Nasim is the elected head of her organisation of her village Mudd Khoso. Their tribe was in conflict over a piece of land with the other tribe residing in their neighbourhood.
That feud has taken the lives of 38 people on both sides. Nasim took the initiative and led a delegation of women of her tribe. They went to the houses of their rival tribe and invited their women to join their organisations.
They replied: “The males of your tribe will kill our women if we come to your houses.” But Nasim and her colleagues took the responsibility of their security.
When those women came to Nasim’s house, they were given a lot of respect. Then these women belonging to both tribes compelled their males to settle their feuds.
The bone of contention, the piece of land, was eventually distributed among the families of those killed in the conflict.
The UCBPRP also includes a component whereby the youth from economically and chronically poor segments of the society are provided scholarships for receiving training in vocational skills.
Under this component of the programme, 29,547 participants have been trained in different trades. After being trained, many of them have opened up motor rewinding workshops, refrigerator and mobile repairing shops, beauty parlours, etc.
The Craft Enterprise initiative is for capacity-building of the skilled people of the area, development of their products and designing marketing strategies to enable these marginalised craftswomen to have access to local, national and international markets.
Orders of up to Rs 133,409 were placed last month for different products manufactured by the craftswomen of the Kandhkot, Shikarpur and Khairpur districts.
The poorest of the poor, including widows and people living with chronic disabilities, are provided grants to purchase livestock or anything that could help them generate income on a regular basis.
It has helped so many people to step out of the shadows. The Income-Generating Grant has been given to 5,640 members.
The most effective, powerful and result-oriented intervention of this project is setting up of a village-based revolving fund at the community level. This fund, the CIF, provides interest-free loans to the members of the COs for investment.
This fund has a very encouraging impact on the lives of the common people and has saved them money that they used to pay as huge interests for their agricultural inputs and other things. Almost 75,000 women have benefited from this fund. It is organised by their COs.
The VOs are to be given schemes of sanitation and drinking water supply as grants. Shelter support is being provided in terms of low-cost houses to the extremely poor households who live in thatched huts and require shelter. Some 5,284 low-cost houses have been initiated, whereas 4,161 houses constructed.
After the 2010 flood, the regular interventions of the UCBPRP were temporarily suspended, and with the support of the provincial government, relief and rehabilitation work was started with special focus on providing shelter to the flood survivors. Construction of over 6,000 houses has been completed in different areas of the province’s three districts.