About 25 years ago, Benazir Bhutto made history when she took oath as the first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan. Her story is inspiring for many young women in Pakistan today, including me.
That’s why seeing her book on a shelf in Lorne Craner’s office caught my eye. I was meeting with Mr. Craner, the president of American Councils during Civic Education Week, in my capacity as an alumni mentor. Civic Education Week is a unique opportunity for Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study students to gain hands-on experience with US organizations committed to community service and civil society and see firsthand the institutions of American government, including visits to members of Congress and a dialogue with policymakers at the State Department.
As we talked to Mr. Craner about projects we had taken on in our home countries since our exchange programs concluded, he seemed interested to know more about our most significant projects. For me, it has been working for gender equality, especially for educational, economic and political rights of women through awareness programs. We also discussed how Benazir is considered a change-maker for millions in Pakistan, yet many accuse her of not changing much for women in terms of constitutional policies for women rights. I recalled how miserable things are for women back home in Pakistan and how crucial it is for women to contribute to politics and for every social institution. Their absence simply means they do not exist.
In Pakistan, especially the Balochistan province where I come from, there is a long way to go. Sitting at the office of American Councils though, for a little while I recalled how privileged I had been in the last six years to explore so much in life, something that very few girls of my home province can do.
I had spent most of my life in Gwadar, a coastal city of Balochistan, the southwestern province of Pakistan. I grew up seeing how much people in my region had to endure on a daily basis, on top of political instability, corruption, illiteracy, poverty, and social inequality. Even today, walking in a village in Balochistan, one might well encounter women collecting wood for fires, young girls walking miles in search of water, and clutches of carefree out of school children with herds of goat. This is a reality of everyday life for the majority of people in my province where basic necessities are sometimes luxuries for only a few. Sometimes, it makes me think the time stuck somewhere between 17th and 18th century in most parts of Balochistan and never moved on. Thinking of working for change in such a place is very challenging, yet not impossible. The first step is education. And it’s been my life’s mission.
I was only 15 when I promised myself to never live the life that majority of the girls in my region lived. I was privileged because I lived in a town, where there were schools, and, luckily, my father was educated enough to value education for his daughters. Not everyone agreed. In my hometown, many people assumed 10th grade was a lot for girls because, further from 11th grade, girls had to be in college where teachers were men. It was not acceptable for most families, even in a town like Gwadar, for many years. With the recent introduction of internet and social media forums, people are highlighting the issues and social change is making its way to this long-forgotten region, though the process is slow.
One of the reasons for the slow change is that the efforts for change are made on an individual level. We need government investment and legislation. Today, Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate for women and the highest maternal mortality rate in the region. Balochistan has a very low number of women legislators -- and when women are not present in the key positions, they cannot make decisions for themselves.
When I advocate for women to be in politics, the education sector or contribute to economic development, I often get asked, “Why don’t you join politics then?” My reply is always the same. As a writer and as an activist, my job is to advocate for change, whether it is through writing or by raising awareness as an active citizen. This is what Civic Education Week taught me six years ago: to be aware of the grassroots issues in my community, find possible solutions in my capacity, and take up the issues into the major discourse of community. Today, what I often write is a reflection of the issues my people face on daily basis such as the water crisis, lack of educational opportunities, and political, economic, and gender inequality.
The last six years of my life have been very different. Each day has become an adventure as well as a challenge. After my exchange year, the first thing I did was to found an English language learning center in a suburb near my hometown and to share my experience in form of a book in my native language. I have been fortunate to represent my region in different forums in different countries and I have been contributing to the local newspapers more recently through data-driven articles to have the policies changed. With my passion for social activism and self-actualization through education and awareness, I am sure to bring a positive change in my region.