Perween Rehman is most at ease sitting with a group of people, especially if they are from a katchi abadi (low-income settlement) and can exchange ideas with her. A qualified architect, she heads the well known Orangi Pilot Project — Research and Training Institute (OPPRTI) in Karachi. There are piles of papers waiting for her and scores of meetings with government officials and their partners. But poor people are more important. And herein lies the success of the project, for people are ‘their own best resource’.

Rehman radiates warmth. She smiles easily and frequently bursts into a chortle. You marvel as you listen to her with rapt attention, trying to figure out why she is the way she is. “I am an optimist. The maximum I can remain depressed for is ten minutes,” she tells you later when you interview her in a spacious, well-ventilated meeting room in OPP’s office, in Orangi.

“Maybe it has to do with what happened to us in East Pakistan,” and she begins her story. “I was in Class IX, in 1971, when Pakistan lost its eastern half (present Bangladesh). I was spoilt and pampered, being the youngest among four siblings and was like any teenager, obsessed with music, friends and partying.” Life was a never-ending joyride till the day the Mukti Bahini came to Mirpur, in Dhaka, where Rehman lived with her middle class parents. “We saw people being killed, right in front of us. They separated the men from the women. I thought this would be the last I’d see of my father.”

It was in her final year of studying architecture, in 1982, when Rehman, a star student of Dawood College of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, realised that what she was being taught was ‘not relevant’. “I was really confused. I didn’t know why I’d taken up architecture. The way the architects were designing was all wrong and the way they were treating young architects was worse,” was her first impression.

She had been visiting katchi abadis and had become interested in the social networks that existed there. Unwittingly, she was chalking out her future. The next two decades saw her totally committed to understanding development in the poor settlements of Karachi.

Even before her graduation, she landed in one of Karachi’s high-flying architectural firms. She didn’t last there for even a month. After graduating, she got another plum job but her heart was just never in it. Restless, yet not knowing exactly why, she started exploring the city of Karachi by herself. One morning she read about a low-cost housing project by some United Nations agency in Orangi, and decided to visit the place herself. A few hours later, she was in the office of the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, the renowned Pakistani social scientist.

“I still remember my first encounter vividly. It was quite fascinating. It was a tiny room, with barely any natural light. I didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Rehman. “Doctor Sahib looked me up and down and asked why I had come. I said I wanted to work,” she narrated her first meeting in detail. “He sat next to me and listened attentively to all my woes as a disillusioned youngster.” The thing that struck her was the respect he gave to her.

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She has fond memories of the 18 year relationship with Khan. “He taught me a way of life. When I first joined I would fight with a lot of the other team members. Fresh out of college, armed with a degree, I thought I knew more than them and ordered them around. Naturally there were many rifts.” Khan taught her to “first acknowledge what you lack, try and see who has those skills and then stick to them like a leech and pick their brains!”

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When Rehman joined the OPP, she was the only woman among a group of men. Somehow, water and sanitation have long remained a male-dominated sector. But that did not deter her in any way. In 1988, the OPP branched out as three independent institutions. … Today, there are 24 women in all the three programmes, including six working in water and sanitation. “I think it’s very important to have men and women working in a team. Women learn to be assertive and men become gentler,” she said.

However, she feels women have an advantage over men in the development field, especially vis-à-vis the poor. “As a woman working in the field it was very easy for me to enter a household and talk to the women. That gave me an edge over the men in my team and let me look at issues in a more detailed manner.”

With OPP-RTI now actively lobbying with the local government, Rehman, being a woman, finds it easier to meet the Mayor. “My male counterpart may well be made to wait for hours before being allowed an audience. Women are treated with more respect!” But to be taken seriously, women in the water sector, have to prove that they are technically knowledgeable. “Only then will they be accepted,” says Rehman. She experienced that too. “I was young and talking about serious issues. For many, who were not used to women in this area, it was initially a little difficult to digest. But once they started working with me, things were different and acceptance was forthcoming.”

After over two decades of working with women in the urban areas, Rehman quickly puts to rest the long-held view that women have no say in decision-making. “My experience has been otherwise. However, women may be using men as their mouthpiece and it may seem that men are making that decision. Women, by nature, are not assertive but gentle persuaders. We had to take women on board first. Men may have laid the pipes, but it was the women who collected the money; they were the mobilisers. I’d say things are a lot less complicated if you involve women!”

Rehman gives the example of Dadi Amma, the octogenarian who went door to door, convincing the people to lay the sewers. Single-handedly she collected money for the work from all 50 houses in her lane. It was the first lane in Orangi’s Mujahid Colony where OPP carried out sanitation work.

The OPP took people into confidence and started by advocating for the development of an underground sewerage system, one lane at a time, without a master plan, and convincing the local government to “build and improve on the existing external drainage system of the rest of Karachi, which would cost less than starting a new system.”

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“We’re neither contractors, nor delivery people, we are teachers, ourselves learning from situations,” says Rehman.

Excerpted from Women Water Professionals: Inspiring Stories from South Asia, edited by Sumi Krishna and Arpita De, Published by Zubaan under the auspices of SaciWaters.