This is not the typical story we hear about women in Pakistan. This account comes from David Burton, International Communications Officer for FH, during a visit following the country’s worst floods in its history (floods began July 2010).
On the first day of a field visit, we approach our first destination – a compound which has seen thousands of people come to receive emergency supplies since September. Expecting to see a hygiene and sanitation training session, we are astonished to experience a standing ovation from a crowd of two to three hundred men, some holding placards with messages of thanks.
We’re embarrassed, but as we awkwardly wave people to sit down there’s a second explosion of high-pitched cheering from a class of children in a building to the side of the compound. We’re ushered to seats at the front of the crowd.
Though we appreciate the expression of thanks, it is not us who merit this welcome, but the development workers who have come with us to conduct the training. They have been working 12 or 14 hour days for months, traveling in cars and on motorbikes to very remote communities.
The most remarkable among them are the women – there are not many women on staff with our local partner, but a handful of female staff have been hired, mainly to serve as hygiene promoters to the women beneficiaries of the project.
The culture of Pakistan, particularly within the communities that we are serving in southern Punjab Province, is very traditional in many ways. The expectation for most women is that they will marry early, raise children and rarely leave the home. The idea of women speaking for themselves, and operating independently, is an extraordinary one.
The crowd in the compound, though excited, is not focused. Even as we sit down, some are starting to drift away. So we are astonished to see Saima*, one of the female workers, rise to her feet and address the crowd. Speaking strongly, she makes herself the focus of the crowd.
This is not just audacious, it’s something which many of these men may never have seen before – a woman speaking with compassion, authority and confidence.
The drifters stop and sit back down. The training starts.
Saima would be first to admit that her confidence would not be possible without the strong and supportive men in her life. Growing up in a community in southern Punjab Province where women and girls were not allowed to leave the home or be educated, Saima’s father defied cultural norms and made sure that all five of his daughters received the same privileges as his two sons, including providing them with education. In response to family members and neighbors who challenged the freedom he provided his daughters, Saima recalled her father responding, “These are not my daughters, these are my sons!”
While studying at the university, Saima fell in love with a fellow student who had grown up in a rural village some 20 kilometers outside of the city where their university was located. While his family was very traditional, this man shared the same values of Saima’s father and encouraged Saima to study hard to achieve her dreams of a successful career and family life.
With the blessing of her father, they were married soon after graduating from college, and now are living with Saima’s husband’s family in the rural village. Before working as a hygiene promoter with FH’s local partner, Saima was a school teacher. Since the beginning of her marriage, her in-laws have questioned why Saima is working rather than focusing on family life and having children. In response to her in-laws’ challenges, Saima says, “I face them, and I don’t lose my courage. This is very difficult, and sometimes I feel discouraged, but my husband encourages me and tells me to keep strong.”
When Saima heard about the opportunity to work as a hygiene promoter among flood-affected families, she felt strongly that she needed to apply. Two days after her interview, she found out that she was hired for the job. She recalls her proud husband’s response when they received the news, “‘It is for your praying, for your courage, and for your patience,’ he told me.” Saima is thankful for her job and the opportunity to serve communities impacted by the floods. She is hopeful that this is only the beginning.
“I have some dreams for my future,” she says. “I want to live in the city, and my husband and I want to establish our own home…. That is why we are working hard together to achieve that future.”
It was certainly clear to me on that first day in the field when I saw Saima confidently speak in front of a crowd of enraptured men that she was no ordinary Pakistani woman. With the continued support of her husband, along with her determination and courage, I pray that Saima will continue to overcome obstacles and obtain that bright future that she is dreaming of.
* not her real name
Pakistan often is known for its pockets of religious extremism and oppression of women. By hiring a woman to teach the community about health and hygiene, FH and its partner organizations send a loud message about the value, dignity and equality of the female gender.
Gender-based injustice often becomes amplified after devastating disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, the brutality in Darfur or this flood in Pakistan. Wives might suddenly become widows with no means to earn a living, and girls and women without safe shelter become even more vulnerable to attack as they venture out to find water or food. FH takes a special focus on women and girls as those left most vulnerable following a disaster.