I still recollect the difficult times when, for the first time I decided to contest the elections for the local government as an independent candidate in 2001. In the under developed district of Lower Dir, women were barred by local influential figures through mutual agreements to cast their votes in elections, let alone to allow a woman as an independent candidate. Despite all opposition the people voted for me to become the first elected women councilor on non-reserved seat as an independent candidate.
The year 2008 was a period of great disappointment as militants had taken control of Swat valley excluding women from public spheres including putting ban on girl’s education for sometime. It appeared that all efforts by different actors, including my organization, have gone back to zero.
The operation Rah-e-Nijat in 2009 by Pakistan’s security forces dislodged militants from power, yet the challenge of rehabilitating almost two millions IDPs back in Swat appeared almost impossible. As if the testing of the people of Swat-Malakand region was not complete yet, devastating flood in 2010 washed swaths of agricultural land, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people.
It is indeed heartening to see the resilience of the people of Malakand region in bouncing back to their lives and getting back to whatever they had lost during the militancy and floods crisis. Personally, I am glade to see women now engaged in the discussions and activities that affect their lives politically, socially and economically at the community level. We wanted to promote the work of women embellished workers to increase their income through making them shareholders in the net profits of their labor. To this end we opened an outlet in the capital city of Islamabad and to showcase their work at national level in Pakistan. Apart from our own trained hundreds of women workers, MEDA had trained and organized thousands of women embellished workers in Swat-Malakand region during the past five years. We have taken up the responsibility to become sustainability partner of MEDA for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which will enable us to link the work of MEDA for women economic empowerment to our own efforts of Shinkhalai.
Shinkhalai is the brand name of our women economic empowerment program that is marketing and promoting women workers hand and machine made products. Unfortunately the precious work of the women embellishers is under valued because of the lack of competitiveness of their products with the market trends. We have engaged Hunerkada – the art and fashion designing school in Islamabad to overcome this gap and to design the products according to the prevailing market trends and demands at the national level.
To build synergies, we have linked the efforts of other institutions such as the women skill development program of Small Industrial Development Board (SIDB) of government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Through a memorandum of understanding, we have agreed to pool resources and energies towards the economic empowerment of women in the disasters hit Swat-Malakand region for creating a greater impact.
During my interactions with women from Swat-Malakand region in our political empowerment program known as Jamhori Maidan program (JMP), I have felt extreme joy to see women taking an interest in democracy, political process and elections. It has enabled me to overcome the disappointments and depressions that I had experienced during my work with women IDPs from the region in 2010. The most amazing development in the JMP is the reality that women are not only taking interest in political developments but also there is an emerging trend amongst the educated female from the region that they can take independent decision to support a political party of their choice as against the preferences of their male members in their families. I have also seen many more women taking the courage to contest elections as independent candidates such as Ms. Nusrat Begum from Lower Dir, where she run for National assembly seat. Even women with disabilities are politically active and aware of their role in the society.
The JMP has engaged men and women from Malakand region to get engaged in bridging the gap between state-institutions and citizens through formation of citizen’s forums. Young women and men of the area have been trained to become leaders in the political sphere. Through radio talk shows, women and men have taken part in the discussions that relate to women participation in the political processes and their rights as equal citizens of Pakistan. In my opinion this is a huge development in changing the discourse and propaganda of the militants that they made through the use of FM radio channels in Swat-Malakand region.
To make these changes sustainable and provide them institutional backing, we have reached a memorandum of understanding with the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) to support the establishment of the District Committees on the Status of Women (DCSW) in three districts of Malakand division that include Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Malakand. The women leaders that have been trained in the JMP in the three districts are the potential nominees for the DCSWs. It is rather saddening to see the pro-women PTI government being slow in notifying the DCSW in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The DCSW have an important function with regard to cases of gender-based violence (GBV) and gender sensitive planning, budgeting and monitoring at the district level.
There are many women now ready to contest the forthcoming local government elections, as independent candidates after our political training program but unfortunately the local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have not been held so far. These eager and motivated women leaders from the region are looking forward to the local government institutions as a great opportunity of their political empowerment and testing their leadership skills.
Let us hope that this journey of peace and progress continue in the region for our bright future.
Shad Begum is a human rights activist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and a recipient of international women of courage awards.