This Learning Paper is designed to share the lessons, successes and challenges of establishing the social enterprise and brand, Taanka, by Community World Service Asia (CWSA) and is intended to capture the narrative in establishing the brand as a guide for other potential social enterprises.

From 2015 to 2018, YCare International and Community World Service Asia worked in partnership to improve financial resilience and promote gender equity of disadvantaged young women in Umerkot, Pakistan. The project addressed extreme poverty, food insecurity and gender inequality faced by young women, their households and communities, and contributed to young women having safer, happier lives, with reduced poverty.

Taanka emerged as a by-product of this project and was launched1 in 2016 as a social enterprise to meet several needs; to promote the finest handcrafted amalgamation of contemporary designs with traditional stitches, produced by rural women artisans from interior Sindh, Pakistan and facilitate collaboration between the women artisans and urban designers, design students, commercial textile companies and fashion brands, to reflect consumers’ demands in ethnic designs.

Download the complete Learning Paper here

Photo credit: Unicef Pakistan

Prays for the virus to go away
“My name is Nitesh Kumar. I am a Grade 4 student at the Nationalized Muslim School. My school is located in Maheshwari Para district in Umerkot city. I believe that schools are a place of learning, a safe atmosphere where children can connect and have fun. Now, when we are all restricted to our homes and unable to see our friends and study together at classes, I feel frustrated and sad. It's not easy to stay away from school as I enjoy studying and attending school.. I have heard from my parents about coronavirus. They tell me it is spreading from person to person very rapidly around the world. We have also seen on the Television how this virus is particularly harmful for children like me and the elderly. To prevent this disease from spreading, we wash our hands a lot of times a day. My mother has also asked my siblings and I to stay indoors and not play outside. My family has seven members, and I am the eldest. My father worked as a labourer and earned a daily wage. He does not work very often now as there is little work nowadays. We received PKR 12,000 under the Ehsaas Program with which my father purchased essential food items and feed for our farm annimals. The food will last us for a couple of months. I miss going outside to play with my friends. I also miss attending Mathematics class as I enjoy solving tricky math equations assigned to us by our teacher. We have not even met or seen our relatives and cousins in many days due to the limitations on public transport imposed during the lockdown in Umerkot. We do not go out much anywhere anymore. I was looking forward to my aunt’s wedding which was planned to take place in my summer holidays. I was excited to meet my cousins and enjoy the wedding festivities. The wedding has now been postponed as the preparations for the wedding were not complete due to closure of shops.I am sad to hear that. Since we are at home the whole day, we play different games such as playing with marbles or ludo to keep ourselves entertained. It is difficult to spend time at home with no homework and limited activities. I pray for this virus to end so that I can meet my friends and relatives and enjoy like I use to with them.”

Photo credit

Siddique suffers a financial blow

It was agonizing for William Siddique to borrow money from someone to keep his little grocery shop operational and restocked. He had never felt the need to do that before since his shop had always been running successfully, providing him a comfortable income. That is of course, before the coronavirus outbreak hit Pakistan.

Thirty-four years old Siddique lives in Latifabad, which is a housing community that mostly homes the religious minority communities in Hyderabad city of Sindh province. Siddique’s lower limbs were afflicted with polio just months after his birth.

“From a very young age I have lived a difficult life as I felt worthless due to my physically disorder. However, things changed when I started running my own shop in 2012. I was earning a good living for myself. This independency restored my sense of being,” said Siddique.

Ever since the COVID-19 spread rapidly in the country and a lockdown was imposed, the shop has been running low on supplies and Siddique has had insufficient resources to restock the shop.

“The government has eased the lockdown now and shops have started to re-open, following protective protocols. I had to borrow PKR 40,000 (Approx. USD 249) to purchase the most popularly bought products to restock in my shop. I now have to worry about repaying this debt.”

Siddique walks on his hands due to his disability and rarely uses a wheelchair when going out.

“I enjoyed my time in the shop as some friendly customers would spend some time chatting with me. Also, my friends took me for outings and rides on their bikes which felt really good. We have not been able to do anything of that due to the lockdown.”

Siddique’s father, Shafiq Masih, works at the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation as a sanitation worker while his mother Anayatan Bibi, works as a domestic helper in some houses in Hyderabad city.

“In the last 10 months, the Corporation has not paid wages to sanitation workers, which is why we have been in a financial crunch. Moreover, my mother also lost her job as three of the houses that my mom worked at asked her to stop coming due to the lockdown. She has not been paid since then either.”

When Siddique was 14 years old he got admission at Hayat-e-Nau (New Life), a Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children located nearby.

“The Centre spent two years teaching me survival skills, including how to read and write and how to interact with people,” Siddique recalls fondly.

In this case, Siddique has been lucky since not every person with disability is fortunate enough to get such an opportunity. The National Policy for Disabled Persons was formulated in 2002 and a National Plan of Action (NPA) in 2006. However, that has still not been able to ensure the education and employment of many people with disabilities in the country.

Visually impaired, Zain Khan, struggles with social distancing and online-learning

Considering the implications of COVID-19, social distancing for people with disability, especially for the blind, like 24-year old Zain Khan, has presented a whole new set of challenges. Khan is a rights activist, a student, and a TV show host on the web-based channel Belonging to Bahawalpur and studying MSc in Development Studies at the University of the Punjab’s Lahore campus, Khan is frequently traveling hundreds of miles between the cities.

“I have traveled to many cities and countries on my own. I move around independently but sometimes I need someone to accompany me,” shares Khan. “However, with the current scenario, implementing social distancing in practice is becoming a big challenge for me.”

The youngest of three brothers, Khan’s father passed away few months before his birth. His mother and two brothers have raised him with utmost love and care. He is smartly using a talking software on his touchscreen phone and Job Access with Speech (JAWS) for the laptop.

“The Brail language is useful during school but at college and university level we use technologies like JAWS to provide us help. During the lockdown, it is difficult to communicate in the same way.”

On his own, Khan is actively engaged in private, non-governmental initiatives for disabled people. Pakistan Para-climbing Club and School of Inclusion are two such institutes that he is part of.

“In June, there was a meeting of youth leaders in Sweden and I was to participate in it. But now the program is being conducted through online webinars. Also, my university has started online classes. The JAWS software helps a lot but seems technology yet needs to improve further and people like me need to be even more tech-savvy after the outbreak of coronavirus.”

The Masih siblings survive a lonely lockdown without a means of income

Only four kilometers away from Siddique’s shop is St. Paul Christian Colony in Hyderabad. This is also an urban slum similar to Latifabad. Here live siblings, Shabana Bibi, 30-year-old and her brother Saleem Masih, 20 years. The two siblings are suffering a different kind of challenge than Khan and Siddique.

Shabana was physically impaired due to active polio at the age of 2 years and Saleem started experiencing mental health challenges around the time he completed high school. Shabana and Saleem live alone in their house as their mother passed away ten years ago, followed by their father three years later. Their father worked as a sanitation worker at the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.  Their other three siblings live separately in their own houses.

“I used to sew clothes to make some money but now my eyesight has gone weak and I cannot carry on with this work. Our only income now is my father’s pension of 10,000 rupees (roughly US $65) a month but since this lockdown, I have not been able to go to the bank,” Shabana shares. “I don’t let my brother go out alone. Even when there is a need to buy something, I go along with him. So, I could not send him to the bank either.”

The Sindh government had been very active in managing COVID-19. Although there were reservations about the lack of provision of food to the poorest communities amidst the lockdown. In mid-April, the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral of Hyderabad had a food distribution in the area.

“We survived with the food assistance from the church; otherwise, we would have starved to death by now,” shared Shabana.

Shabana and Saleem are currently living alone in complete quarantine due to the lockdown.

“Other family members used to visit us almost every week but due to the lockdown, my brother and I are left almost alone because no one comes to meet us now.”

Jeevo Kolhi quietly stands with his vegetable cart, in the scorching heat, by the side of the street in the city of Hyderabad in Sindh, hoping someone will stop by and buy some vegetables from his cart. Though Jeevo’s small business has fortunately been excluded from the Province’s lockdown measures, his sales have been gravely affected and his problems have multiplied.

There is a new policy everyday. Most days, without any warning, the authorities raise the stringency and lockout measures and ask us to wind up the cart and return to our homes before our business day has even started. Since the vegetables I sell are perishable products, I cannot keep them in storage and shut my business for even a day.

Jeevo was only able to carry on his business for three days out of the whole week at the end of April.

The government has allowed vegetables to be sold till 5 p.m daily as soon as the clock hits 4 p.m., enforcement officials become aggressive and start ordering us to return to our homes immediately. This has made our businesses barely functional

The revenue from Jeevo’s daily sales has also dropped since people are reluctant to come out and buy anything from small vendors such as him, assuming vendors on carts would lack hygiene and protective measures.

I take care of cleanliness and make sure all vegetables and my hands are clean so people should not be scared to buy vegetables from me or from those who run small vegetable carts like me,

shared Jeevo.

With nine children and a wife to support, Jeevo is struggling to make daily earnings sufficient to feed the family of eleven.

Before the lockdown our life was good. We were making all ends meet as I was not the only income bearer. My wife and three daughters work as house-cleaning maids in the neighborhood and would earn a monthly salary from it. Since the lockdown, they have all lost their jobs. They will only be able to restart work if the virus is contained and the lockdown is lifted. Until then I am the sole bread earner for my family.

Jeevo and many other families like his are suffering from unemployment, food insecurity and poverty amid the coronavirus crisis. Jeevo is apprehensive that if the outbreak continues and the lockdown does not end, he and his children will have to resort to asking for charity and food to survive.

I look after cleanliness so people should not be conscious to buy vegetables from me and from those who run small vegetable carts.

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf more cities and rural communities, all and any kind of travel and movement between cities and external borders has been halted in Pakistan. Before the travel restrictions were imposed, Community World Service Asia’s (CWSA) team working on a Food Security and Disaster Risk Reduction(DRR) project supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan, conducted awareness-raising sessions on preventive measures against COVID-19 with the communities that they work with. With the imposed lockdown, those activities had to be stopped as well.

As an alternate way to continue raising awareness and minimize the threat of the virus further spreading our teams decided to engage Village Committees[1] (VC) in the mobilization processes. CWSA project staff teams conducted online sessions over mobile telephones with members of Community Based Organisations(CBOs) and Disaster Risk Reduction Committees, both community-based structures established by the project to ensure community ownership and engagement, of eight villages in Umerkot. The sessions aimed at enhancing knowledge of community members on the COVID-19 disease, its signs and symptoms and precautionary measures to be taken. Through these sessions, selected community members were trained and were asked to replicate the same trainings within their communities.

We received soaps from the  Chairman of the Union Council, which we distributed door to door in Surto Oad village. We also informed the people in the village on frequent hand washing to maintain cleanliness at homes and the surrounding environment. We were told to maintain social distancing and avoid participation in social gatherings to reduce the chances of being infected,

 shared Shiva Ram President and DRR Committee Member in Surto Oad village of Umerkot.

To share our learning ahead, we are mobilizing people to avoid unnecessary movement during the lockdown situation. With the help and guidance of the CWSA’s team, we have identified an isolated place where any suspect of the coronavirus will be quarantined. These isolation rooms have been identified and set up in various villages where awareness sessions have been conducted. The villagers have converted their Otaqs, which are drawing rooms or guest rooms located at a distance from family homes in rural household settings, into isolation rooms. All community members been made aware of signs and symptoms of coronavirus and are advised to immediately shift suspected people to the isolated place identified in the village. We have also updated our DRR plan with the emergency contact details of government and other line departments to be used in case of suspected patients or emergency,

added Shiva.

The online sessions not only focused on sharing practical information on COVID-19 but also sensitized communities on building societies grounded in solidarity, equity, and care for one another. Motan, a DRR committee member from Haji Chenasar village in Umerkot said,

Farmers are busy hoeing and harvesting Okra crop. While working in the fields, all farmers wear masks or take over a cloth to cover their mouth and maintain six feet distance. Our earnings have decreased as a result of the lockdown as work opportunities are limited. There is limited aid from the government and civil society organizations. We are being offered to work in agricultural fields but at very low wages. If the situation is prolonged and markets do not open, the food security and livelihood situation will become challenging for us.

In order to minimize the spread of the virus, I wash my hands with soap at least 10 times a day and also teach the same to my children and other children of the village. We wear masks whenever we step outside our homes and cover our mouth when sneezing or coughing. My family and I are not going out or visiting our relatives now. We only go outside when we need to purchase food or household items. When a guest arrives at our place, we ensure social distancing and sit six feet away from each other,

shared Hurmi, who is a member of the Village Committee in Haji Chensar Mari village.

Some Village Committees’ members in Umerkot are forced to discontinue their jobs and stay at home until the situation is contained. Social distancing and home isolation are effective measures to control the spread of the virus but is simultaneously having adverse impacts on women and children in terms of gender-based violence (GBV), child-abuse and increased manual labour.

In Pakistan, figures on GBV are expected to rise as the poorest of communities are continuing to lose their livelihoods and income. Women are categorized as the more vulnerable in the current crisis and need to be at the forefront in all awareness-raising, mental and physical health activities associated with COVID-19 response. To ensure their inclusion and to address the risks associated with the pandemic for women, twenty-four sessions on gender implications of COVID-19 and best practices on minimizing these risks were conducted among rural communities (both men and women) in Umerkot in the month of April.

Establishing and strengthening village committees in target villages has proven to be effective in terms of awareness and knowledge building on COVID-19 among communities. This would not have been possible without the communities showing keen interest and being proactive in learning, practicing and sharing the information to reduce the risks of the virus spreading in their homeland.

While rural communities are struggling to make ends meet and to ensure a means of food security for their families, the pandemic is indiscriminately impacting both rural and urban communities in terms of businesses closing down and unemployment rising rapidly. It is expected that between 12.3 million and 18.5 million people in various sectors may lose their jobs in Pakistan. In Punjab province alone, at least half a million textile and garment-industry workers have lost their jobs[2].

[1] A body of like-minded people representing households in a certain locality for to help in improving the localities in terms of progress and awareness building on different matters. These community groups have been established by CWSA through its projects to ensure community participation and ownership of programs.

[2] Pakistan Workers’ Federation (since March 28th)

Empty streets outside Rukhsana’s home in Umerkot.

Rukhsana Yasmeen is a primary school teacher based in Umerkot city of Sindh Province in Pakistan. She teaches at the Government Boys Primary School, Police Thana, and is a participant of the Education and Teachers Training project implemented by Community World Service Asia (CWSA) and supported by PWS&D and Act for Peace. Rukhsana worries about her students who are all forced to stay home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and shares her own personal thoughts of her experiences in lockdown so far.

The lockdown imposed by the government to control the spread of the coronavirus is having a drastic impact on the education of children here in Umerkot. They will forget all that was taught to them. Schools not only serve the purpose of providing education, but also gives children a chance to interact socially and keeps them energized and fresh. With this shutdown situation, children are frustrated and baffled. It is difficult to say whether the students will be able to perform well in the final examinations to be held in June.

Rukhsana and her family of 5 have confined themselves to home. She has three children including two daughters and a son.

At home, we try to maintain a sufficient distance between each other. However, living in a small, two-room house makes it challenging to avoid complete contact. The practicality of social distancing at home is difficult.

The economic situation in Umerkot is tense and most businesses have come to a standstill. Daily wage laborers are most at risk of poverty and food insecurity as their incomes have completely stalled. Before the crisis, their most basic expenses were met on a day to day basis, but now their daily needs are unmet.

Sitting at home without any money or very little money leads to anxiety and results in many conflicts among family members at home. This adds to the stress and uncertainty that looms over all these families that are completely homebound and affects the children at home too.

Rukhsana’s husband also worked as a daily-wage laborer. Due to the lock down, he is unable to go out of the house to find work.

I am worried about managing our monthly expenses, such as house rent, food and other household essentials with only my salary. I am not sure for how long my salary will be able to sustain our family. Our future seems uncertain

Rukhsana also recently found out that the Government of Sindh has deducted five percent of all government employee salaries as contribution to the COVID-19 relief funds. Rukhsana also falls in that category of government workers and has further strained their financial conditions.

Keeping her own children entertained and engaged in their studies at home has also been quite a challenge for Rukhsana.

There are very few entertainment resources at home. They do study for a while but cannot be engaged in school work the whole day. All their outdoor activities have been put to an end so there is no way for them to vent out their energy.

At the precautionary end, we are try to wash hands from time to time and use clean kitchen utensils when cooking and eating. Moreover, we are not drinking cold water nor taking a bath daily but instead bathe on alternative days. We ensure cleanliness at home as it the only way of keeping us safe at home from this pandemic.

We are happy to see how efficiently our government is working to control the spread of this infectious disease. All shops, malls and other public places have been shutdown to avoid social gatherings. Never did we think that we will experience such a stressful situation in our lifetime. Nonetheless, we have faith that we will overcome this positively and safely.

The Lady Health Worker and Community Mobilizer conducting a session on COVID-19 and sensitizing community to reduce the spread of the virus in Umerkot.

Community World Service Asia’s (CWSA) Health and Livelihood program teams initiated awareness sessions on prevention and safety from Coronaviruses 19 for the communities that they work with in the region. These sessions were planned and conducted in coordination with local government health departments, community Health Management and Village Health committees

Citing the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, the health teams are raising awareness as part of a larger effort to drive social change and prevent the further spread of the virus in the countries. The health sessions on coronavirus focused on limiting movement, avoiding small or large gatherings and maintaining hygiene and good sanitation. The teams ensured to use informational educational material translated in local languages and delivered the sessions, in local languages too. Communities were thoroughly sensitized on the signs and symptoms of the COVID – 19 and the precautionary measures to be taken individually and as communities.

Children, woman and families were particularly advised on the safest and most thorough ways of washing hands with soap and use of alcohol-based washes and sanitizers and the need to wear masks and staying home and away from all public contact and travel.

A total of thirty-two awareness sessions with staff, health workers and communities have been conducted by CWSA’s program teams so far.

Sixteen years old Dhelan Kumari, is the only girl of her age in village Khunhar, who continues to attain education and attend school to seek higher education. She is currently in 11th grade.

I got engaged when I was only 15 months old. My fiancé is from a different village but is of an equal status as my own family so our parents planned to wed us when we would turn 12 years.

Dhelan’s parents have six children and she is one among their five daughters.

My husband, Jumoon, is a farmer and earns a small income of PKR 300 daily. All my daughters are married except Dhelan. She is the youngest of all. Dhelan has always been enthusiastic about going to school and bringing more meaning to her life,

said Dhelan’s mother, Lakshmi.

During one of her school activities, Dhelan got the opportunity to attend and watch a theater play organized by one of the local landlords in Kunhar.

It was a play by a local theatre group called Purbhat[1], on early child marriages. It was my first experience attending a play and I got to learn so much about the prevailing issues that were never discussed with us before. I learned the challenges a girl faces when she is married at a very early age. She is unable to complete her studies; she is unable to cope up with the new family which results in a lot of challenges for young girls and their families. Moreover, she is never happy that way.

After attending the theatre play in early 2019, Dhelan’s drive to prioritize her education grew even more and she wanted the same for all the other girls in her village.  One day, Dhelan grew the courage to talk to her brother and mother on the issue and they both supported her with this cause and helped her spread awareness on the importance of education for girls and the disadvantages of early marriages.

Dhelan’s dedication and energy motivated me to support my daughter and help her in achieving her dreams,

shared Lakshmi.

Although she faced a lot of retaliation from the village community, Dhelan was determined and committed to work for her cause. She wanted to create awareness among young girls and highlight the adverse consequences of early child marriages. She wanted to emphasize on the importance of education for girls and prove that girls are no less; they have equal rights as men and should not be suppressed.

To Dhelan’s advantage, a theater group was formed in Khunhar village and was named ‘Khunhar’. Everyone from the village was encouraged to join the group, especially young girls and boys. Dhelan showed her interest in joining the group. Ashok, the president of Khunhar’s Steering Committee came to Dhelan’s family and recommended Dhelan and Lakshmi to join the theater group to inspire other women and girls of the community.

My uncle discouraged us and tried to stop me from joining and participating in the theater plays. He said this will bring disgrace to the family and my in-laws will not approve of it as well. However, the support of my family made me strong and gave me the courage to take the step of joining the Khunhar Theater Group,

 shared Dhelan.

Dhelan was relentless. Her mother Lakshmi and she joined the Khunhar Theater Group along with eight other members from the village. This theater group is the first ever to be formed at a community level along with three others in Umerkot. As part of the group, each member is paid a stipend of PKR 1000 for every play they perform.

Dhelan’s education expense is covered by the stipend we earn through the theater group.

said Lakshmi.

Dhelan wanted to continue her studies and did not want to be wedded off soon. She was lucky to have a family that supposed her. Her mother stood by her side,

Education is very important whether it is for a girl or a boy. It teaches you the difference between right and wrong and not the difference between a man and woman. No one can take away the knowledge you gain in your lifetime and that can be your highest achievement in life. I wanted Dhelan to be an educated girl and lead a better life. Dhelan shared with her brother that she did not want to get married and continue her studies instead. I want to see Dhelan in a better position as well, rather than just being a housewife and a labor worker in the fields. We talked to her in-laws and insisted on postponing the marriage. Dhelan’s brother also encouraged her fiancé to continue with his studies so that they could build a better future for themselves together. As a result, the marriage was postponed and no date for the wedding is decided as yet. Dhelan continued her studies and is now in 11th grade,

 shared Lakshmi happily.

My college is in the city which is a twenty minute walk from home. I am also taking computer classes in the evenings. I topped the board exams of standard eight, nine and ten in Umerkot. I aim to top again in standard 11. On the weekends, I give free tuitions to young girls in the village. I want to do as much as I can for women and children, not only in the village, but in all of rural Sindh. The plays we perform are aimed at ending child marriages and encouraging girls’ education. Many people in the community have become aware of the negative consequences of early marriages. They put an end at child marriage when they witness any,

firmly concluded Dhelan.

[1]  A local theater group in Umerkot

Community World Service Asia (CWSA) is providing Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) services, under its Health program, in collaboration with the district health department at two Taluka Hospitals (THQs) in Umerkot and one Mother Neonatal Child Health Centre in Sujawal district. The MNCH caters to thirty surrounding villages in the two districts.

CWSA implements long-term health programs for vulnerable and marginalized communities in the region. The projects under this program operate through static health units within the provincial health structures, Preventive and curative health services, vaccination campaigns, mother and child health, and health education are some of the key components of these projects.

In most remote areas of Pakistan, cultural barriers prevent women from seeking medical treatment from male nurses and doctors and as a result prolong their illnesses or leave themselves undiagnosed. The health centers set up by CWSA are equipped with women medical staff to ensure that women and girls in the communities have equal and easy access to health services.

These rural health centers employ women medical staff that provide vaccinations, pre and postnatal care, education and awareness on sexual reproductive health and family planning, and delivery services to women and young girls in the villages.

Since January 2020, the health team has organized and facilitated eleven awareness sessions on polio eradication, HIV/AIDS, Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI), hepatitis, family planning, antenatal and postnatal check-ups, breast-feeding benefits and healthy nutrition for pregnant women in the catchment areas of both THQs, namely Samaro and Pithoro. In addition, the health team participated in a ‘Family Mela’ organized by the Population Welfare Department in Umerkot.  Through the awareness activities, communities, Health Management Committees, local schools and children were sensitized on the major causes of epidemic diseases and their signs and symptoms and precautionary measures. Information, Education and Communication (IEC) material was also distributed and displayed among communities on related topics during the sessions. Baby kits were also distributed for the mothers of newborns and pregnant women. Whereas, Hygiene Kits were distributed among school children and wheel-chairs among disable persons in the community.

Moreover, the health teams collaborated and supported a government lead polio vaccination program in Yousaf Bhatti village to help them mobilize communities and convince them to take the vaccinations as many local communities were against the campaigns. The medical staff sensitized the community members on severe effects of polio and how it could lead to permanent disabilities, with vaccination being the best prevention. The community was convinced and agreed for their children to get vaccinated.

Rural communities facing poverty, food insecurity, malnutrition, and inaccessibility to basic services, often put health-care as their last priority. Community World Service Asia is committed to helping such communities access their health rights, find sustainable solutions and reduce disaster risks as they survive and find ways to earn livelihoods.

 Most families in Anwar Pathan live in a joint family system. Early marriages and living in a big family bring along a lot of responsibilities for new and young brides in this community. The new bride is expected to take on all the home chores, go to the field and harvest the seasonal crops in addition to taking care of all the family members living in the house. A tremendous amount of burden is put on the little shoulders of a child bride. This naturally deteriorates her health. As you see, there are very few or almost no woman here who is overweight. This is because all women here work a lot and are weak due to the many burdens they bear since a very young age. If these women or girls complain even a little, it results in conflicts among family members,

shared a young man, named Gom Chand, who is a member of the Steering Committeeⁱ and Community Group set up in Anwar Pathan village, located in Umerkot district of Sindh province.

Gom Chand and his wife were only 14 years old when they got married. Four years on, now 18 years old, Gom Chand teaches at a local private school in Anwar Pathan.

Women in this village are not educated as most have not attended school and those who did get the opportunity, have only studied up till class 5. Even as a boy, I was forced to marry at a young age and had to leave my education, with no one encouraging me to continue studying. Instead, I was told to earn a living as I had to bring home money for my wife and bear family responsibilities. Soon after my wedding, I began work as a daily labourer, and earned a mere income of PKR 200 a day.

For many centuries, it has been a cultural norm to wed off young couples aged between 12 and 16 years in villages such as Anwar Pathan. Just as a child would be born, their families would start searching for a perfect matrimonial match for them and in many cases even engage them at birth and as soon as they would turn 12 years or reach their teens, they would be married off.

I never supported this idea though,

shared Gom Chand,

And as it turned out, I also suffered a lot by being married so young.

We are a family of six members, including my parents, wife and siblings. My relative, Chander, told me about the EVCⁱⁱ project as the team visited for an orientation meeting at the village. He shared the main objective of the project which was eliminating and discouraging the practice of early and childhood marriages. This convinced me to join the Steering Committee. I saw this as a platform to share my experiences and motivate the youth to gain education and build a bright future for themselves.

Fifteen of us, seven men and eight women, joined the Steering Committee of Anwar Pathan. As members of the committee, we largely work towards achieving for four key objectives. Firstly, we will build awareness on the importance and access to health care for men, women and children. We encourage women and children to avail proper healthcare treatments from the nearest health facility instead of always adopting traditional home remedies. Secondly, we discourage the practice of early childhood marriages. Thirdly, we are advocating for increasing girls’ education in the village.   Since this is not encouraged much in our village, we are conducting meetings with parents who do not send their girls to school and are urging them to educate their daughters and sisters as it is equally important as is educating boys. Lastly, we are promoting the role of women in decision-making.

Gom Chand watched a theater play in Bharo Mil village which highlighted the disadvantages of early childhood marriage and encouraged communities to educate their children instead. The play exhibited how societies would flourish if their people and youth were well educated. Upon his return from Bharo Mil, Gom Chand felt the need of opening up a school for girls in his village. And he did as he had planned and did inaugurate a school in Anwar Pathan in March 2019. Gom Chand teaches at this school and earns a monthly income of PKR 14000.

There was no school in our village so no girl in our village ever went. With the help of a friend working in another welfare organization, I registered the school and encouraged parents to specially send their daughters and sisters to the school. Today, 45 girls and 12 boys are enrolled in this school and attend classes every day.

There are 10 pairs of Community Groups established in each village, each pair consisting of a man and a woman. Every one of these pairs is assigned five households to work with and build awareness on the same objectives as the Steering Committee. Gom Chand and his Shama, another resident of Anwar Pathan village, make up one these pairs.

The training that was organized on Gender and Women Empowerment on November 2018, and a refresher course that followed a year later in 2019,  delivered sufficient information on the fundamental rights of women and the importance of education, especially for girls. We understood how the existing gender issues in our community adversely affected the lives of.

 Gom Chand and Shama held meetings with the five households allotted to them and encouraged women in those families to voice out their concerns and participate in decision-making processes.

Gom Chand’s brother, Prem Chand, was to be married at the end of 2019.

When I heard about the wedding preparations, I could not hold myself back from standing against this decision and lifelong tradition. He was just a 16-year-old boy and his bride to be was only 15-years-old. My father did not want to go forward with the wedding either but due to the pressure from my brother’s in-laws to be, my family decided to go with it. Shama and I visited the in-laws’ and tried to convince them on postponing the wedding. After hearing about my early marriage experience and the challenges my wife and I faced, the bride’s family postponed the wedding for three years.

In terms of contributing to women empowerment, Gom Chand encouraged his wife to further enhance her embroidery skills by enrolling her at a nearby vocational center. A District Engagement Group member, named Shanti, helped him identify this center and facilitated them with the enrolment process.

A skill building training was held in Mirpurkhas to which I accompanied my wife, Pooja, every day for fifteen days as it is difficult to commute alone in this area. After successfully completing the training, Pooja received five sewing machines.

I am very proud of my wife as she teaches embroidery and stitching skills to other girls and women from our village at our home now. Fourteen woman and girls come to learn the use of different threads, design methods and colors. For running this home-based coaching center and working on orders, Pooja receives PKR 4000 monthly from PCDPⁱⁱⁱ. The attendees of the centre pay a monthly fee of PKR 100. I can see the happiness in the eyes of my wife as this initiative has brought new meaning to her life.

Hina, 16 years, and Seeta, 15 years old, are two of Pooja’s students at the center.

Miss Pooja teaches us stitching and embroidery. We come to the center for four hours daily. If it wasn’t for this center, we would be doing home chores the whole day. This is a fun activity and us friends get to sit together, share jokes and learn new skills of designing and stitching,

 shared Hina.

A video screening, highlighting the goals of the Steering Committee and its role in promoting positive change in the communities by reducing early childhood marriage and motivating women towards decision-making, was organized on December 18th, 2019 in Anwar Pathan, by the Steering committee members.

The members of the committee invited the Chairman of the Union Council as a special guest at the screening. It was an honor to welcome a higher official in our village. The community members were excited to see the video as these visuals are appealing and conveyed the message very clearly. More than 250 people attended the video screening. It was a very proud moment for us.

ⁱ 22 Steering committees are formed in each village, comprising of 15 representatives with equal representation of male and female participants. The steering committee works on different issues of the village and supervises the Community Groups. They represent grass root level issues with civil society and local authorities at district level and work towards resolutions in collaboration with the EVC Team. The committees were formed in the month of August 2018.

ⁱⁱ   Every Voice Counts – Community World Service Asia’s project

ⁱⁱⁱ Parkari Community Development Program