I normally try and keep Oxfam trumpet-blowing to a minimum on this blog, but am happy to make an exception for this piece from Jacky Repila (right) on a new report on our Raising Her Voice programme in Pakistan, a country that ranks 134th out of 135 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index (only Yemen is worse).
When Veeru Kohli (left) stood as an independent candidate in Hyderabad’s provincial elections on 11th May, she made history.
Kohli is poor. Making the asset declaration required of candidates, Kohli listed just two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of 2,800 rupees, wages for labourers in Karachi are around 500 rupees a day.
She’s a member of a minority group – Hindus represent less than 6 per cent of the country’s total population. The vision of tolerance and inclusion of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has sadly been eroded as we can see from the 500 Pakistani Hindus who recently fled to India to escape discrimination.
She’s uneducated and does not boast the political connections or patronage of most politicians. In fact she has ruffled feudal feathers, escaping captivity from her former landlord and fighting in the courts for the release of other bonded labourers.
And then of course, she’s a woman. Only 3 per cent of all candidates contesting the general seats for the National Assembly were women.
And yet…. in spite of the inevitable establishment backlash seeking to devalue her credentials, on 11th May six thousand people voted for her. Although not enough to win the seat, the fact of Kohli’s standing is in itself a remarkable act.
As a former bonded labourer in her mid-fifties with 20 grandchildren, Kohli’s journey to election hopeful is the stuff of legend. And Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice programme is proud to have played a small part in her success.
Kohli is one of the 1,500 women’s leaders who have been supported by the Aurat Foundation and Oxfam through training, exchange visits, information sharing and mentoring as part of the Raising Her Voice programme, seeking to support women’s political participation and leadership in 17 countries worldwide.
Pakistan can lay claim to the Muslim world’s first ever woman prime minister and elected Speaker of a National Assembly and yet there is a glaring disconnect between constitutional rights and customary or Islamic laws.
That makes it very hard to overtly organize women in public. But women can still talk to women in ways that outsiders can’t, so RHV’s vehicle of choice has been ‘Women’s Leadership Groups’ (WLGs). RHV has supported 30 such groups, of about 50 women each. The women in them are mainly educated, some with party political connections, but an increasing number, like Kohli, are poor.
They have been recruited as WLGs have reached out to less well educated, less confident and poorer women in their communities – we reckon some 187,500 Pakistani women have benefited from the programme.
The WLGs have provided safety and strength in numbers, enhancing the potential to form alliances and gain influence which has brought political, economic and social benefits:
- In Hafizabad (a district of Punjab Province) over half the members of the zakat – Islamic relief – committees are from WLGs.
- Sindh district level committees – such as education – now have 2 to 4 women from WLGs.
- Nationally, 116,000 women have obtained national identity cards with the help of WLGs.
- In some areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some Awami National Party (ANP) workers were stopping women from voting in the 2013 general elections, until the WLG raised it with ANP leadership who took action against the offending party workers.
Reinforcing the grassroots activism of the WLGs has been the indefatigable advocacy and campaigning of Oxfam’s partner, the Aurat Foundation (AF). Media savvy, an influential player within Pakistani civil society and internationally well connected, AF is a skilful navigator of Pakistan’s political undercurrents.
AF strives to influence the structures – laws, political processes, traditional and institutional centres of power – that disenfranchise Pakistan’s women and curtail fulfilment of the country’s true potential.
Today the Aurat Foundation and Oxfam launch The Politics of Our Lives: The Raising Her Voice in Pakistan Experience, a report documenting the learning from RHV’s work with AF in Pakistan. It makes essential reading for those wishing to support programmes seeking to shift the balance of power between the sexes in countries where getting it wrong can have very serious consequences. A ‘road map’ it isn’t, that would be too prescriptive, but it is a valuable resource for governance practitioners. And beyond this, documents the remarkable achievements, conviction and stamina of the women leaders and their advocates, who, like Veeru Kohli, have pushed the boundaries ‘against all odds’.
As Veeru said: “Initially I was not fully prepared, but then I thought, this could be done only by me, so I went all the way…”
The RHV programme in Pakistan received total funding from DFID of £445,257 over five years