For Ghulam Sughra Solangi, recipient of the International Women of Courage Award 2011, a forced marriage and the denial of an education became the basis of a movement that changed her life and that of hundreds of Pakistani women.
If there’s one theme to Ghulam Sughra Solangi’s life, it is how tables turn if one pursues an objective with unwavering resolve.
When she started out, the influential landlords of her village made sure to make life as difficult for her as they could. Now, after she received the prestigious 2011 International Women of Courage Award, the same men are competing with each other for her time so that they can hold dinners in her honour.
“After I was awarded, they realised I had done something worthwhile,” 40-year-old Sughra said in an interview with the US Embassy in Islamabad in February.
The Pakistani government’s response has been similar. “Now, if I go to a minister in Pakistan, all my work is expedited,” she said, beaming.
The award, presented to her by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama in Washington DC, recognises her work towards improving the social status of women and poor families in rural Sindh. The annual award was presented to nine other women from as many countries across the globe. For Sughra, it’s an irony that foreigners recognised her work before her compatriots did.
“The ministers admitted that they, [despite] being in Pakistan, had not known who I was and what I did. But Secretary Clinton, even though she was in the United States, found out,” she said.
Sughra received this honour for her work in forming and running the Marvi Rural Development Organisation (MRDO) back in 1994, two years after massive floods ruined large areas of her village, Khairpur Mir, in Sindh. She started by motivating well-off families to organise relief camps and rehabilitation centres for flood-hit families. In the process, she realised that the actual problem with her village was the utter dependency of women on men for almost everything, from access to basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter, to permission to make life decisions. She then started analysing income-generation prospects for women in the village, particularly to empower mothers to send daughters to school. Thus came about the MRDO, which she formally registered under the Social Welfare Act 1961.
Despite being only 23 at the time, Sughra had seen enough pain in her own life to instantly recognise the plight of her village’s women. Though it has a happy ending, her story began much like that of hundreds of Pakistani women. As a child, she was denied the right to an education because in her family, it was a privilege afforded only to boys. Ironically, her father was himself a schoolteacher.
“Living with the bitter reality of illiteracy, I spent my childhood regularly taking lunch to my father [at school],” Sughra said in a telephonic interview with Aaj TV. On her way home, she would intently peer through holes in school windows to see what went on in classrooms.
Then at the tender age of 12 she was forced into a marriage that ended six years and two children later. “He left me because I was neither beautiful nor educated,” she explained.
Being the first divorcee in her village, Sughra was treated as an outcast. “I was unable to concentrate on household chores, such as cooking, embroidery and sewing,” she said, recalling the hard years immediately after her divorce.
Eventually, as her children grew up and joined school, Sughra asked them to teach her everything that they studied. She slowly began picking up the pieces of her life and enrolled in school as well. Four years later, she gave her Matriculation examinations as a private candidate and continued to study for her High School Certificate exams.
Determined to rebuild her life, she became the first female high school graduate in the newly formed Girls Government School and in 1980 she was appointed as the first female teacher at the first primary school for girls in her village.
“Sadly, there were no girl students in my class, as parents were not inclined to send their daughters to school”, said Sughra. This biased mindset only renewed her desire to help others break the same shackles that had once held her down.
“I encouraged other women who were also forced into early marriages, and their children, to go to that school and get an education,” Sughra said.
She saw how pervasive this problem was when she started her door-to-door campaign to convince parents to educate their daughters. “The village’s men thought that if they educate their women, they will learn to write letters and elope,” she said. “They would say: ‘what will become of us if our women start standing up for their rights?’”
But Sughra wasn’t one to back down so easily, even though it wasn’t until 1999 that she got her first major boost. This was when she was elected as the Pakistan fellow by the Ashoka Foundation which invested in her organisation, the MRDO. She could now realise her ultimate aim to make it possible for women in rural areas to communicate with men, even speak to them in the streets, without their character being called into question.
Sughra then approached the International Labour Organisation, seeking donations for MRDO’s outreach programmes in order to empower women to send their girls to school and show to men that they are capable of a lot more than just housework and child-rearing. She also realised that one reason parents were reluctant to enrol daughters in school was poverty.
With the ILO’s assistance, she implemented a micro-credit loan scheme for small-scale businesses in Sindh. The ILO and MRDO collaborated to launch small enterprises to increase female employment. Projects included as a rose cultivation business, crop-growing loans to small agricultural landowners and micro-credit loans to households interested in starting a business of handicrafts and hand-woven carpets. Earnings were used to buy tools such as sewing machines and raw material for arts and crafts.
Eventually, with increasing donations from other non-governmental organisations, MRDO also implemented projects in Punjab and Balochistan. Members now liaise with the Aga Khan Foundation, ILO and Oxfam for capacity-building training and establishing sources of micro-credit loans.
Sughra’s organisation has expanded constantly, but it hasn’t been easy. When she established MRDO, she gathered a group of likeminded women to launch a membership campaign. She would receive a great first response, but interested women would back out following severe backlash from their immediate families and influential landlords. The women eventually succeeded in registering 300 female and 85 male members, aged between 14 and 55 years from 30 villages of Kumb Union Council and Khairpur Mir district. Now, the MRDO comprises 62 women’s rights groups with 2025 members and 25 men’s groups with 404 members.
The sort of praise that Sughra has earned for her work is then well-deserved. In an interview with American news broadcasting station NPR, Secretary Clinton called her efforts to start a girls’ school in her village an act of enormous bravery because most people didn’t see any reason why girls should go to school. “And so, we want to help her do what she’s trying to do to make Pakistan better.”
US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter hosted a ceremony in her honour, where he said Sughra has advanced freedom, equality, opportunity and dignity for everyone in Pakistan, not just women. “We should never underestimate the power of an individual to make a difference. And what a difference Ghulam Sughra has made!”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 20th, 2012.