Organised women fighting social ills

  • 23 February, 2017

By Noor Pamiri

Pakistani women, especially the women from rural areas, are often seen as timorous, subservient, and devoid of any agency. It is assumed that the rural women are traditionally conditioned to obey everything told by men, and expect nothing. This may certainly be true for a very large number of rural women, but not for the residents of Allah Waryo Mallah. The women here have taken an unusual step, putting their men in a corner, for good. Let’s come to that a bit later.

Allah Waryo Mallah is a village located in Union Council Sheikh Fareed, District Tando Muhammad Khan. Villages in Sindh are generally named after prominent personalities, or tribal chiefs. In some cases, villages are also named after the caste of the residents. Allah Waryo might have been the name of one of the elders of the village from the past, while Mallah is the name of a caste. The Mallahs are traditionally engaged in fishing and boating.

Allah Waryo Mallah is like any other poor village of rural Sindh. Located at a slightly elevated piece of land, the village is surrounded by dry bushes, with thorns on them, erected as a safety measure. A narrow opening in the protective bush-wall leads one to an open space where small and large huts, mud-houses and cattle pens are located. The houses are in bad shape, the village floor is dusty, and there are merely a couple of trees, here and there. Buffalos, goats and hens can be seen near the residential quarters. There’s poverty everywhere.

Under one roof, a group of prattling, colorfully clothed women sit in the midst of beautiful Rillies (handmade mosaic sheets), hung on the walls and also spread on the floor. A couple of men are also present.

These women are members of a local community organisation formed only two months back with the help of National Rural Support Programme (NRSP), as part of the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support Programme (SUCCESS), funded by the European Union. Such organisations are being formed in eight districts of Sindh, to organise and mobilise the rural women.

During their first meeting, the women of Allah Waryo Mallah village discussed their problems, including lack of access to water, lack of health facilities, inadequate educational opportunities, unemployment and myriad other issues. These problems were discussed at length, with the aim of finding solutions.

What topped the list of problems faced by women in the village, however, was substance abuse and gambling by the men. Vast majority of the village’s men, and boys, were either drinking alcohol, or taking some other drugs. Some had become addicts, and were also involved in gambling and other activities leading to the wastage of hard earned resources. Something had to be done to stop this.

The women thought for long about the issue, and decided to not remain silent spectators. They wanted to put a stop to the resource wastage and deterioration of health caused by consumption of locally distilled booze and other drugs. The women, unanimously, agreed that they will talk to the men of the village and ask them to stop consuming alcohol and other drugs, and also to stop gambling on cock-fights. While the women were determined, they were also cognizant of the risks involved. What if the men refused? What if they became violent? There were many risks, but silence was not an option for the women anymore.

Members of a family standing in front of their house

The debate against drugs and gambling started inside the houses. Pros and cons were discussed, and reason won in some cases. But, as we know, not everyone is logical. Some men resisted, while some reacted with anger, asking the women to stay in their limits. Some women were rebuked harshly. However, the women did not back off. Some of them stopped talking to their husbands and sons, while others started being less cooperative. As a measure of last resort, some women also threatened that they would report the men to the police if they used drugs, or indulged in gambling. This scared some, and they agreed to cut down consumption, and gradually stop drinking.

So far, the women said, they have been able to convince 30% of the men to stop drinking.

“What gave us confidence was the fresh sense of togetherness after becoming members of the Tanzeem. We were united and we felt powerful”, said Ms. Nazeema*, a community leader, while the women sitting around nodded affirmatively, as if endorsing her statement.

“Even the boys had started drinking alcohol by looking at the elders. It is not healthy. Drinking alcohol has destroyed so many lives. Men would become abusive after getting drunk. They wasted money. It affected all of us in one way or the other. Therefore, we stood against it, and have had some success. But the struggle will continue”, she adds, smiling.

The women said that a local man who used to distill alcohol has now less customers than before. He also avoids being seen around the village due to the fear that the CO members might report him to the police. The cock-fighting has also gone down, and men are able to save more money.

Kaleem Muhammad*, 30, an ex-alcoholic agrees. A fisherman by profession, Kaleem earns around 300 rupees per day.

“I used to give 200 rupees to my wife and keep 100 rupees for Tharra (local word for alcohol) every day”, Kaleem says, in a low voice, sitting in the middle of the women who are smiling and laughing.

Kaleem wasn’t comfortable opening up about his indulgence in alcoholism, initially. A couple of women stood up, talked to him and almost dragged him to the middle of the meeting hall, making him sit and confess.

“I used to drink because I was very frustrated. Feeding seven children with my income is very difficult. I did not know what to do. So every day I would drink for 100 rupees, and got some solace. One day a police man also fined me when he caught me drunk”, he says, laughing.

“I stopped because what I was doing was bad. The women made me realize that consuming alcohol was not good. I was wasting 100 rupees per day. Now I spend that on my family”, Kaleem adds, while promising to never touch booze again.

The women clap for him, encouraging him to keep his promise. He stands up and literally salutes them. It seems so magical, surrealistic.

Gaining confidence from their initial success, the women of Allah Waryo Mallah now look forward to continue their fight against drug abuse and gambling. But they also have other plans.

Repaired portion of the school building’s boundary wall

Recently, the women and men collected money, and provided labor, to mend the broken boundary wall of a primary school located just outside the village. They are urging parents to send their children to school. They are also helping the villagers in developing their marriage certificates and other official documents.

In the future they plan to raise awareness about health issues. Tuberculosis, Malaria, Diarrhea, epilepsy and stroke are some of the diseases affecting people in the village. The women also plan to save enough money to construct a Mosque in the village as there is no communal place of worship for them currently. They are also concerned by the increasing unemployment. The women want to find solutions for these issues. It is an uphill task to resolve all these issues at the community level, but the women’s determination creates a lot hope.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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