Aiming High

Published in The News

In our part of the world we come across various organizations that are doing their bit for the welfare of women belonging to the lower strata of our society – be it educational programmes, health awareness campaigns etc. And it is quite heartening to see that women of all ages are striving hard to change their lifestyles and make a better living. It was a few months back that I started a mentorship programme at a The Citizens Foundation (TCF) School in Orangi Town, a fairly violent shanty town in Karachi, Pakistan. I expected meeting girls devoid of dream and helpless due to the conditions they were living in. But I met with a slap, metaphorically speaking. I was given a group of 7 girls along with a co-mentor and not a single one of them fit my preconceived notion. Not only were those girls excelling at studies but also fighting poverty through various income-generating activities and all at the meek age of 13-16. They were all eighth-graders. TCF is one of the largest non-profit organizations in Pakistan in the field of education with schools in far-flung and underprivileged areas. Many of their students are now even going to universities. One of my mentees, Akhtari Shahzadi, a 15-year-old, stood out from the rest of the girls. She is a little behind her age because she had to miss out on education for two years due to some family problems. Her father suffered from facial paralysis last year and hasn’t been able to work properly ever since. Being the eldest, Akhtari has shouldered the responsibility to manage the household income and household chores. She stood third in ranking in the 8th grade when the results were announced. She also managed to be a ‘prefect’, the local term for member of student body. However, over the summer break, her mother passed away, leaving more burden on this teenager’s life. This was a huge loss for the family and being the eldest, Akhtari had a hard time consoling her siblings – 5 sisters and a brother. Regarding the loss of her mother, Akhtari says, “Life moves on. As much as I miss my mother, I have to ensure that my siblings are all able to go to school.’’ Her mother was operating her school’s canteen, both for the morning and afternoon shift but after she passed away Akhtari became the in-charge of the canteen along with her sisters who also go to the same school. Her father used to bring the merchandise, which was then taken to the school. The canteen was a major financial engine for the family with an average earning of 200 rupees per day. But now the contract has been taken from Akhtari and someone else is running the canteen. However, all is not lost as there are other jobs that Akhtari is employed in. One of which is zari- fancy embroidery work. Most of the girls in Orangi town embroider at home, from where a middleman takes it to cloth markets and sells it. The home-based workers are grossly underpaid as the finished work fetches a high price in the retail outlets. The zari work brings her 250 rupees per day however at times the volume of work gets curtailed due to constant distraction at home where Akhtari and her sisters have to cook, clean and study and take care of their father, who due often falls sick. “I have been doing zari embroidery for the past six years,” shares Akhtari with pride as she hasn’t received any formal training. According to her, “Initially my maternal uncle taught me the basics but after that it was a self-learning process through observation. My first pay was 20 rupees for my work on a flat piece of fabric six years ago.” Her hard work doesn’t stop there as she also gives tuition to neighbourhood children studying in kindergarten. These children are given homework, which they are unable to do as their parents are not literate. She tutors 7 children and charges rupees 50 a child per month. While people around her often discourage her to give up on education as it is utilising a lot of money, Akhtari refuses to bow down. “I will never leave school and neither will my siblings,” she says with determination. She dreams of joining the Crime investigation Department of Police, an unusual dream for a girl in Karachi. But the events around her have inspired her to take on the path as violence is strengthening by the day.

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