Sadiqa Salahuddin’s face is alight with enthusiasm and commitment as she talks about her work at grass roots development. She sees this as the turning point in her career, though she came to it by a longer pathway. She is very much a Karachiite; daughter of the highly respected and eminent scholar Prof Karrar Hussain, she grew up in a household which valued the pursuit of knowledge and democratic ideals.
After obtaining a masters degree in economics from the University of Karachi she joined NIPA (National Institute of Public Affairs). This opened her eyes to the inherent, systemic problems in governance, and gave her valuable exposure to other parts of Pakistan, and to government officials which increased her understanding of management, administration, and the political pressures that they faced.
These often rendered it impossible to have merit-based appointments; at other times, bureaucrats were forced to abide by government rules, or were coerced to go the wrong way. She gained understanding of their constraints, and the pressures they lived with. She found training an effective means of achieving closer rapport with them.
Field trips to Sindh’s rural areas revealed that the government level service delivery was pathetic, be it in education, health or other features like water supplies and communications. Schools hardly had teachers, “I was repeatedly surprised by the affluence of government officers on the one hand, and their condemnation of corruption, on the other.
“Later I came in touch with communities through my NGO work and came to know of life on the other side of government services — the victims’ viewpoint. I realised even more deeply that there is no way that corruption can be justified, except possibly by building solidarity with people. My interest in poverty issues increased.”
After spending a long time at the NIPA, during which she obtained a masters degree in economics from Syracuse University, US, she joined the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). As she learnt more about people and their lives; her commitment increased, and she joined the NGORC (NGO Resource Centre), a project of the AKF, as an executive director. “Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to meet some very fine people, from whom I have learnt a lot,” says Salahuddin.
However, a stage came when she felt that her views and outlook differed from AKF’s, as the new strategy focused on building capacities of large organisations who, in turn, would support the community-based organisations. She was of the view that the ‘trickle down’ theory has not worked in economic developments, and is unlikely to work in capacity building. To her, the greater need was to start from the grass roots and work upwards. They parted ways, and she decided to establish the Indus Resource Centre in 1999, with its operational base in Khairpur, Sindh — a risky proposition, as she herself says.
It was risky in several ways; married to a well-known journalist, Ghazi Salahuddin, and mother of two daughters, her home base was Karachi and Khairpur was physically very far from home. But encouragingly, she had complete family support.
In Khairpur, she realised women’s issues were crucial and that violence was ubiquitous. She also found the women very wise — they were very well aware of the links between, say, poverty and the large family size. However, the missing factors remained education, health and service delivery, including family planning.
“Empowerment requires first and foremost, education,” she says. Accordingly, she began work by establishing 18 one-room schools in 18 villages, with the help of DIL (Development in Literacy). Initially, she planned to have only girls’ schools, as government schools for boys already existed in the area; but later, on repeated parental requests, opened schools for boys, too. To make education more useful and meaningful, in addition to the regular curriculum she included environmental studies and reproductive health (RH) education for all ages, starting from the class sixth.
The RH module has now been integrated into government schools as well; teachers have now been trained, and an MOU for this has been signed with the government.
How were they able to introduce sensitive subjects like the RH in that conservative milieu?
Salahuddin explains, “First, we had discussions with mothers regarding the RH, and then with male community members. What they understood best was maternal health: they could relate easily to that. From that point on, we were able to extend their understanding to other aspects of the RH. In fact, that’s been so successful that post-floods, the RH sessions have been held in 50 camps for both men and women in tent cities. Seventeen children were delivered at hospitals; we had a car and driver on call round the clock for two months, for emergencies, to facilitate that.
“In addition, we also work in sustainable development. Our work has now extended from Khairpur to Sukkur, Jamshoro, Dadu, Shahdadkot, and Karachi’s coastal communities. We now have a total of 10,525 students, girls and boys, in the system; 62 per cent are girls. Financial support is from the DIL, Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, the government of Sindh and many individual philanthropists.
“During interactions in tent cities, we realised that issues of the landless are immense — their relationship with the landlords is difficult, and for bonded labour it is worse. We worked with them in sustained fashion; in all our meetings, discussions, and trainings, we set specific norms that were essential for all participants — for instance, zero tolerance for any form of violence.
“We believe that economic empowerment is the key to overall empowerment. That is why we have gone into sustainable livelihoods, particularly handicrafts development and now have a shop in Sunday Bazaar, ‘Khazana’.
“In Khairpur, the Mir Talpur family has given us an old empty building on lease for 25 years. After restoration, it now houses a Women Friendly Centre, a food outlet, an open air theatre and the handicraft shop. Our total staff strength is 847 people,” she adds further.
“Due to the urgent need at that time, our involvement in flood relief and in the subsequent ‘early recovery’ process for flood survivors, increased in Sehwan Sharif and Dadu. Our advocacy efforts for flood relief, education and sustainable development have increased; we work to eliminate violence, which exists at every level. Internal conflicts repeatedly occur — they have no other way of solution. Regrettably, tribal culture and influences seem to be increasing. Liberal progressive education can bring meaningful change — we will try our best to take this up to the policy level.
“People have no hope in their political representatives; rather, they have more hope from learning new skills. There is a real desire for education. When we spread information about starting the school for girls, nearly 68 girls came, with their parents! The communities have now become quality conscious; many parents come to us for their sons’ education because they are dissatisfied with the education in government schools.
“The challenges are many; ours remains a deeply conservative society. Unfortunately education is not leading to economic progress: economic opportunities are well-nigh absent, and self-employment is not easy. Girls are now more educated, aware and ambitious — they have progressed, but society has not.
“It is incorrect to say that parents do not wish to educate their daughters; our work has shown that parents want to educate both boys and girls. Our model, of working with parents, children, and communities has generated synergistic and effective action, even if in small ways.
We feel that these are the efforts that can be replicated further,” she concludes.