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Who will dare to be Parveen Rehman?


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Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro
Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

That is the question that the NGO world, still reeling from the shock of Parveen’s target killing in Orangi Township in Karachi, is now asking itself. At a memorial meeting held in Islamabad this week, NGO workers spoke of the “growing hostile environment for community service in Pakistan”. Parents are now telling their children not to enter into this field, because clearly, “community service is becoming dangerous”. The NGO officials from established organisations like Plan International, Aurat Foundation, the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center and the Imran Khan Foundation called for increased accountability and a minimum standard of protection for social workers. A call was given out to “respect, promote and support community service in Pakistan”.

“Parveen Rehman knew of the risks and yet, she willingly continued with her work. She chose to do this”, pointed out Dr Rakshinda Parveen of the Society for Advancement of Community, Health Education and Training (SACHET). There is no doubt that Parween Rehman was an extraordinarily brave woman. A trained architect who could have lived a comfortable life in Karachi’s up-market Defense or Clifton areas, she instead chose to dedicate her life to the poor of the squatter settlements of Orangi Town. She was the dearly departed Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s (a development guru) brightest and as it turned out, bravest, student and with good reason he chose her to continue with his pioneering work in Orangi.

Parveen had been working at a private architecture firm before being recruited by Dr Akhter Hameed Khan to become Joint Director of the Orangi Pilot Project back in the early 1980s. She was put in charge of managing the housing and sanitation programmes. In 1988, OPP was split into four organisations, and Parveen Rahman became director of the OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project – Research and Training Institute), managing programmes in education, youth training, water supply and secure housing. In 1999, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan passed away and Parveen remained steadfast in carrying the torch.

She would often describe Orangi’s population of 1.5 million people as “a great example of self-help initiatives”. The people of Orangi on a self-help basis (and with technical guidance from the OPP) established modern underground sewer lines and built latrines in their homes. The government only contributed by building the main sewers or nallahs. In Orangi, the people and the government became partners in development. The people of Orangi set up 650 private schools and opened 700 medical clinics, while establishing 40,000 small enterprises in various homes. Around 60 per cent became self-employed. Orangi consists of 113 settlements inhabited by various ethnic groups: Pathans, Balochis, Muhajirs, Biharis, Punjabis etc. It was set up in the 1960s by the government but it expanded very fast in 1981-82 when refugees from former East Pakistan began to settle there.

“Parveen’s community work with the OPP was lessening the differences between the various ethnic groups. The people of the area don’t really have issues with each other – the land and water mafias affiliated to various political groups like the PPP, ANP and MQM are the ones causing all the problems,” explained Aurangzeb from the Al Falah Development Foundation based in Rawalpindi. Although much older than her in years, Aurangzeb considered Parveen to be his teacher and worked closely with her in the last few years. He attended her funeral in Karachi and said that thousands of people in Orangi are mourning her death. “She was very compassionate and it is a personal loss to all of us who work with the poor. For the people of Orangi, she was like a mother who cared for everyone and brought people together in the township”.

Parween was murdered by masked men who shot at her car on Banaras Pul in Orangi (near the ANP controlled area). She was on her way home from work in the afternoon. Recently, she had had been documenting land-use around Karachi, and this may have upset the city's powerful land-grabbing criminals. She was also opposed to the “tanker mafia” who were stealing tube-well/piped water from low-income communities and then selling it back to them in water tankers. Parveen investigated the water shortage in the area and actually discovered that a crucial piece of pipe was missing and had it replaced.

According to Aurangzeb, these mafias have the patronage of politicians and have become even more powerful in recent years. “The situation has deteriorated since the PPP government came to power. These mafias have actually occupied various areas of Karachi and forcibly take bhatta (extortion money) from the local residents who live in fear of them. They are gangsters who are looting the public and really if the local people were given protection by the police or Rangers they would evict these criminals themselves. They are so fed up of them”.

Although the police is now attempting to shift the blame for Parveen’s murder onto the Taliban (who have not claimed responsibility for the attack) and other religious groups, the NGO world is convinced that it was these powerful land and water mafias who are responsible for her death.


“Parveen meticulously documented 500 goths (settlements) in Orangi, teaching young people to do the mapping and data collection. She regularised these settlements and the land mafia didn’t like it one bit,” explained Fayyaz Baqir, another close acquaintance of Parveen who heads the Dr Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center. “In fact, at one stage the land mafia even tried unsuccessfully to take over the OPP office building itself. Parween would receive threats all the time”. The OPP staff had actually been forced to stop work for a month while the land mafia occupied their office in the hope of forcing them off the plot (once peripheral but now well-located). They had to negotiate with other power brokers who recognised their contribution to improving people’s lives and were willing to intercede to enable them to continue with their work.

The day after Parveen was killed, the OPP decided to open up its office and hundreds of NGO workers from all over Karachi came to Orangi to show their solidarity. “We must continue with her work, we cannot be deterred by her murderers”, vowed Fayyaz Baqir at the meeting in Islamabad. Along with the heads of other NGOs in the capital, he is organising an open house at the Islamabad Hotel on Thursday at 4pm to “express solidarity with Parveen Rehman”. Civil society members, the media, university students and trade unions are all invited to come and learn about this amazing woman and to ensure that others, especially amongst the younger generation, will indeed dare to be like her.

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The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues.

She can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (27) Closed

TKhan Mar 19, 2013 01:56pm
Ms. Parveen has been silenced, but the show must go on. Someone said "Evil will prevail when good men do nothing". I say Evil will be defeated as there are many good men who will carry the torch. InshAllah!
kumar Mar 19, 2013 02:05pm
I am not sure why she was killed,
Syed Sarim Mar 19, 2013 02:29pm
My country Pakistan has turnned into graveyard for the innocents and people who are trying to bring a change to this corrupt system. Allah will pull the leash only once to destroy these hate mongers who are spreading chaos in Pakistan, Justice of Allah is the ultimate power and will be served.
Cyrus Howell Mar 19, 2013 02:31pm
Edmund Burke said that. I can't blame the parents. The government needs to recruit The Terminator, Robo Cop and Superman as social workers.
Zak Mar 19, 2013 03:02pm
She was killed by land and water mafia who are under politician protection. These gangsters are not Muslims. If a good clean non corrupt government comes in the next elections than all this will stop immediately. The government should give her a posthumas award and start a charity movement in her name. This mafia heads should be eliminated by any means foul or fair, preferably foul.
AHA Mar 19, 2013 04:32pm
Evil within us cannot be defeated because we do not know what evil really is.
Maznani Mar 19, 2013 05:28pm
No doubt her approach and practical was for the marginalised ppl...what a brave lady she was that despite of knowing the consequences she never feared and nor changed her field. we are proud of her and such like other developmentalists... regarding the insecurity of the NGO PPL I would say it is for every one in our country as our society is shaped with such image. I still believe the daring PPL would never turn back form serving the humanity which is the core of the services
Ahsan Raza Mar 19, 2013 05:31pm
salute to the martyr lady.
Indian Mar 19, 2013 06:03pm
This an example to show that there is no place for good and innocent people in Pakistan
Tahira, USA Mar 19, 2013 06:20pm
Extremely sad. May the earth swallow these mafias as they do not spare any good dedicated worker in Pakistan. May Allah's curse fall upon them and make an example of them for others to see. My heart felt sympathies to Ms Parveen's family.
Katasraj Mar 19, 2013 06:24pm
The philosophy PAkistan is following is the main problem
Parvez Mar 19, 2013 06:27pm
Parveen Rehman in her own quiet way is not less than Malala. She stood for good, alongside the oppressed and against all that was wrong.........her death should not and by the grace of God will not be in vain.
Parvez Mar 19, 2013 06:28pm
Read between the lines my friend.
debater Mar 19, 2013 06:35pm
I do understand why parents do not want their children to follow the path of Social work, and the only solution to the problem is bring about the change the country for so long has been waiting for. I do not keep much hope for next five years even if Imran Khan PTI is elected but do believe the change will be a step in the direction.
KH Mar 19, 2013 08:40pm
Good people are being killed every day, there is no protection and justice in the society. people are scare. Pushing deserving people and pulling illiterate person is the norm of every government We have introduced Quota system to benefits illiterate people and now on every important post a fool is sitting. Instead of merit "Safarish" is the criteria for any job.Leader are scare of good people . We are proud of our religion and being a Muslim but never even try to understand the Islamic teaching even those who can read don't bother what is written in Qur'an and why Islam came in this world.We just listen to our Ulma AND Alim, whose heart and and head is filled with hate and nonsense . First understand Qur'an and then if you have time go and read Hadith. My dear fellow, Islam came just to serve humanity and to end the hate ism.
Sumit Mar 19, 2013 08:53pm
How about ``good women'' ?
Mohammad Ali Khan Mar 19, 2013 11:32pm
It is the responsibility of the media to tell the people of Pakistan what was so important that Ms.Parveen was doing.They need to be made aware of the details and the importance of her work. The salvation of the country lies in duplicating her work in every neighborhood of Pakistan.
PM Mar 20, 2013 12:49am
All good things are brought to an end by Terrorists in Pakistan only the evil will remain in the end
Tajmeer Mar 20, 2013 04:29am
Those people are the killers of Parveen Rehman who don't want that Pakistan make progress and people of Pakistan have a bright and shining future. Parveen was helping the poorer and maybe some people don't want poverty elimination from our country that's why they killed those people who want a progressive Pakistan.
satram sangi Mar 20, 2013 08:07am
she was a candle in wind!
Syed A, Zafar USA Mar 20, 2013 08:18am
Thanks Rina. It is a sad moment for all of us. May God give great rewards to our great sister Perveen for her outstanding human services for our community and bless her soul, amen. "Hazaaron saal Nargis apnee be-noori pay roti hai, bari mushkil say hotaa hai chaman mein deed-a-ver paida" (It takes ages for flowers like Nargis/Perveen to be noticed and recognized for the unique beauty/fragrance they carry)
Cynic Mar 20, 2013 08:41am
As in India buddy. RTI activists in India have been hunted down and their lives snuffed for having stepped on powerful toes.
umair Mar 20, 2013 09:04am
baseless remarks, our neighbours need to correct their philosophy
umair Mar 20, 2013 09:10am
Killing(s) are condemnable. May Allah rest her soul in peace, aameen. Mr. Gandhi was also killed in India..................does that imply to suggest there is no place for good people there?
DharmendraGoel Mar 20, 2013 11:32am
Any humanistwouldbehighly painedto learn thatlatelady Ms Parveen Rahman hasbeen killedby thegoonswhocouldnotstomach her open andbroad pursuit ofsocial ends , thatmay have brushed againstvertry manyevil doingsofthe sharp crimnals who proliferate in urban scenarioslike Orangi ofgreat karachi metro. Pakistan mustsuppress criminal behaviour suchas thismurder of enlightened Social Worker Ms Parveen Rahman isan absolutely essential desideratum. D. Goel
Sohail Jumani (@opportunist86) Mar 20, 2013 04:35pm
Because she raised a voice against Qabza Group who were specially involved in Qabza on parks. I can guess who did this.
Syed Husain Mar 20, 2013 11:53pm
It is an absolute shame that Pakistan could not protect a decent and humanitarian person like Parveen Rehman. Her assassination It is a big loss to the under privileged people of Pakistan. If Pakistan keeps losing good people, only the evil ones will be left behind.