Even as Malala is feted across the world, a quiet change is taking place in rural Pakistan. Meena Menon reports on the micro-credit programme that’s changing lives significantly

It was in Kohistan during the 2005 earthquake that Zubina faced a death threat, and not for the first time. Hailing from Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) where few girls were educated at the time, she studied till Class 10 and trained in tailoring and handicraft. “I became a master trainer and, as part of my work, I was sent to the quake-affected areas to teach people a skill,” she says. But in Besham, no women came forward for the class and it was all young men. The first time she stepped into the classroom, she heard a prospective student tell another, “It’s a woman, let’s shoot her.”

Says Zubina, “This is an area where women can be shot for looking at a man and often don’t even step out of the house to bathe for fear of being killed.” Undeterred, she told her hostile class that she was here to teach a skill and they could take it or leave it. She was part of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) the only development organisation working there. Finally, four or five boys got over the fact that she was a woman and decided to learn something. SRSP is part of the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN), Pakistan’s largest network of NGOs, based on the approach first implemented in northern Pakistan by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in 1982. The RSPN was set up in 2000 as a network of 11 rural support programmes or RSPs.

The work of organising women in tribal areas has been fraught with suspicion. Shaista, a field coordinator in Haripur, says, “People used to think we were American agents or that we would rob them. Villagers locked up their homes. We started talking about issues like water to draw them out.”

Iram Fatima from Narian village says that 15 years ago theirs was the first village in KPK to have a community organisation. “We couldn’t believe that it was possible at first. Ours is a rainfed area and we got funding to dig borewells, which made a big difference to the area. By custom we didn’t visit other mohallas (residential areas) so it was a very different experience for women to move freely and organise.”

In 1994, the RSPs established linkages with India when Shoaib Sultan Khan, the RSPN chairperson became advisor to a UNDP project in the SAARC countries. A team from Pakistan visited Andhra Pradesh to see how women were at the forefront, and it had a galvanising effect. Shandana Khan, CEO, RSPN says, “The visit to Andhra Pradesh was inspiring. Earlier, we had 35 per cent women taking part and people were sceptical whether women would be able to run credit groups or community organisations. Today, the ratio is 48 per cent,” she says.

NRSP also works in the Islamabad area. Rubina speaks of how in the early 90s she heard of people holding meetings and giving loans. “It was so easy — they gave us Rs.10,000 to start businesses and set up shops. We formed a community organisation four years ago. From five to ten women, we now have 15 to 25.” Earlier, women used to borrow in the middle of the month to repay loans or pay school fees. Now, they have bought taxis for their husbands and funded small enterprises.

However, the change often brought them ignominy. They were called shameless and even got death threats, says Shaista. Naheed from the Islamabad Capital Territory says she took a loan to start a tie-and-dye business. “It is not only the money; being together gives us motivation and courage. That is the biggest takeaway.”

Fauzia from Nilor says that at first the women saved Rs.10; those who couldn’t bring money brought something in kind, sometimes even eggs. “Banks refused to give us loans but once we started getting credit from the RSP we could revolve it.” Now, instead of fetching water all night, women disburse money and fund businesses.

Shagufta has started a pickle business with ten other women. “I was the first woman to form a company and do business. The programme taught us to speak up and fend for ourselves,” she says. The community groups also started throwing open political participation and local leadership opportunities. About 300 women have won elections at various levels. Iram has contested twice, the second time in the general elections in Pakistan this year. She lost both times but plans to contest again.

The expansion of the programme has been slow, says Khan. It is present in 111 of 131 districts of Pakistan and in two of the 13 Federally Administered Tribal Areas, covering 5.2 million households. The target: 17 million poor rural households. But it can be achieved with political will.