With all humility, it was elating for me to visit a slum of Chakwal the other day. I saw a young woman of 24 waiting in a pink-white rickshaw for her regular fares, two female teachers, as I reach the makeshift school established beside the dismantled Chakwal-Bhoun railway track in Kazamabad locality under the Jhuggi School Project.
JSP, as it is called, is indeed an inspiring initiative for educating the children of slum dwellers.
Bali Rani, the confident and smiling rickshaw driver, picks up her regular passengers from the school and drops them at their homes.
Besides picking and dropping the two teachers, she has five other regular passengers.
Bali had never thought she would be called to be a bread-earner for her family - her two children and her aged and ailing mother, that too plying a rickshaw on the roads of Chakwal city plagued by unruly male rickshaw drivers.
Bali was born to a family of the forsaken and abandoned nomads of Pakistan in a slum in Sargodha. Her parents used to live on begging.
When girls of her age were spending time playing and at school, Bali was accompanying her mother on begging rounds.
“Barefoot and in tattered clothes I used to trudge along my mother,” she tells with tears welling in her eyes recalling her woeful past.
At 18 she was married to her cousin.
Instead of bringing happiness, and relieving her of her drudgery, the betrothal added to her pains.
“My husband was a drug-addict who never earned a single penny,” she recalls.
Three years into the marriage, the birth of two sons brought her the joy of motherhood but made life much tougher.
“Whenever I asked my husband for money and food, he would get furious and start beating me. I tolerated the daily beating and humiliation for some time but not long and got divorce from him,” she said, rather triumphantly.
With her two sons Bali returned to the slum of her parents and to begging. Later the family moved from Sargodha to Chakwal with hopes of “better hunting grounds”.
But her sensitive soul rebelled and she quit begging in August 2016.
“Begging was the worst experience of my sad life. Many snubbed my pleas for alms, while others would offer money in exchange for sex. That was revolting. I never yielded to their lustful demands,” she said.
“However, there also were God-fearing people who gave me alms without a frown on their face.”
Life changed for Bali six-months ago when Yunus Awan, social activist and chairman of the local NGO, the Trust, Awareness and Knowledge (TAIK), which runs the Jhuggi School Project, convinced her to turn a new page in her miserable life.
Bali was trained for a month in driving a rickshaw and the Plan Pakistan organisation donated her, in partnership with two other girls in her position, a pink-white rickshaw under its pilot project meant to make impoverished women financially independent.
Since then the three have been living a happier life.
“Male rickshaw drivers harass us by hurling foul remarks at us but I damn care.
I just ignore them with the contempt they deserve. It is their evil nature which they would continue to display,” says Bali in exasperation.
People of Chakwal at large though appreciate and show respect the three brave female rickshaw drivers.
“Don’t women in our villages drive donkey-carts, and do all kinds of hard work in the fields and at home, like tending the cattle? So why frown at women driving a rickshaw, or motorbike or a car?” wonders Yunus Awan, the chairman of TAIK.
Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2017