Sughra Solangi is the founder and Chief Executive of Marvi Rural Development Organization (MRDO). She is an exceptional example of what an oppressed woman can achieve through sheer determination and strength.
Relying solely on rural village women themselves, Sughra Solangi works within their traditional village societies to build acceptance for a greater role for women to create a chain reaction which leads to access to education, social services, and greater self-determination for themselves and their daughters.
Born out of a culture of poverty and repression, Sughra has come to believe that until physical development (e.g. roads, electricity, water supply, and schools) is accompanied by an attitudinal change, the quality of life for women will remain unchanged. In rural Pakistan, women are unable to derive any benefit from most developments in their communities because of customs that discriminate against them. Sughra has turned her energies towards bringing attitudinal change in rural villages. She is enabling young girls to go to school and become educated and empowered by addressing the economic barriers faced most strakly by their mothers to their education.
Initially Sughra tried to bring about attitudinal change in the classroom. As the first female high school graduate in her village, she was appointed the sole teacher at a newly formed Girls Government School. However there were no girl students to teach, as parents were not motivated to send their daughters to school. Sughra diagnosed that the opposition to female education sprang as much from poverty as from current social customs. She has therefore implemented income generating work and secured sources of credit so that women can achieve the role of a “bread earner,” can claim a say in the decision to send their girls to school, and can demonstrate to men that they are capable of something more than just housework and child rearing. Villages in upper Sindh and southern Punjab (large agricultural areas of the two most populous states in Pakistan) are dominated by private and religious landlords, known as “feudals.” The populations in these rural areas are grouped into tribes, and many adhere to cultural practices that date back centuries, particularly in regard to the status of women. For a woman to marry without the permission of the men in her family, and the feudal lords who dominate the region, is considered an act of,dishonor. Social norms and customs deny women the right to independent identity and decision making. They are often viewed as property, their role is to be subservient to men and to function as an instrument of pleasure and service, with strict codes of behavior. They usually work in houses and under supervision in the fields. A woman is not permitted to see a doctor alone nor go out of the village alone, but must be accompanied by other women, or preferably men of her household. This code is further enforced through interpretations of religious injunctions. Women who do not follow these codes are punished. Even suspicion of violations can be considered a dishonor, and in this conservative culture, women are mutilated and even killed just on the suspicion of dishonor. As part of this code, girls are married at an early age. Sughra found that villagers failed to understand the need to invest in education for their daughters, since current experience encouraged them to think that they were not capable of productive action in the future. Even though the government has established schools for girls, families did not allow their girl children to attend but limited the expense of education by only sending their boys to school.
Upon appointment as a teacher in the first school for girls in her village, Sughra was faced with the problem of fellow villagers refusing to enroll their children. Sughra had the insight that the origins of the problem lay in the women in her society being unable to participate in family decision making. Her next insight was that if she could help boost the status of women within the household by having them contribute as key players in their families’s economic well-being, women would be able to claim more authority within their homes, including sending their daughters, as well as sons, to school. Sughra knew that to transform attitudes she needed to attract the confidence of her fellow villagers, both men and women. Building it was a slow process that required understanding her village’s cultural norms and key decision makers. She addressed the considerable opposition not only to female education but to the fact that she (a divorced woman) was the teacher. The parents were convinced that she would teach the girls to run away from home with a man. Undaunted, she continued the motivational campaign, including in her team other like-minded women. As a result, a few girls did begin to attend school, but not enough to satisfy Sughra, who wanted access to education for all girls in her village. In 1992, when massive flooding devastated large areas of rural Sindh, including her village, Sugra motivated the better off families to come together and help the flood-stricken. She organized relief camps and rehabilitation works, and her work in these dire circumstances generated more trust in her. During this time she gained the insight that the main problem of village women was of an economic nature, and that until women came together and proved their economic worth to the men, their position in society was unlikely to improve, nor would they be able to send their daughters to school. Sughra’s next step was to address the income generation prospects of her fellow village women. She built up the confidence of the village women to form an association called Marvi Rural Development Organization (MRDO). Members worked actively with her in forming savings groups and increasing the women’s awareness about education, health, human rights, and social development. They sought and secured capacity-building training from the Aga Khan Development Network and support from the ILO and OXFAM to establish sources of micro credit. Subsequently they launched a rose cultivating business followed by a credit project that provided employment to twelve of the poorest families in the village; presently this project is benefiting more than 30 households. In her work to improve the status of women, Sughra has also pursued better provision of health care and other services to their entire communities, through extensive community mobilization, training, and liaising with different government departments. Her strategy for expansion includes identifying villages with several prerequisites: those which have a population of 500 or more people, are the least developed, (i.e devoid of any services,) and already have a local community based organization. She goes to these remote villages, contacts the local community organization, and assists women to form saving groups and to save regularly. Once a sizeable amount is saved she provides them with credit from a revolving fund supported by the ILO. She also offers training to the women’s organizations. In her village she has established a vocational training center where women learn skills so that they can become interdependent rather than remain dependent on their men folk for livelihood. During the process she motivates the villagers to lobby for services with the appropriate government departments and persuades them to send their girls to school. Sughra has built a team of young women in her village who are working with her to spread her ideas. She intends to take up six new villages every year while following up on the previous six. At present she receives requests from community organizations throughout Sindh and beyond for training, but she has concentrated on first strengthening her base in her own Khairpur District. There are 2615 villages in Khairpur alone with populations below 1,000, most below 500 persons. Most are in remote locations with poor access to roads and services (only 328 are connected by a paved road). The success story of her village “Arab Solangi” has reached far, and requests for assistance are pouring in. Sughra is now faced with the challenge of solidifying her team of young women activists. She is trying to build personal commitment and volunteerism among the younger generation of women, who would like remuneration for their services. She herself used an award she received from the World. International Summit in Geneva to lay a roof for her training center. Apart from Sindh, where she has been instrumental in organizing twelve associations, Sughra has helped groups in other areas of Pakistan, four in Punjab and two in Balochistan.
Like most girls in rural Sindh, Sughra was not educated, though her family was relatively well off. She was married when she was twelve and had two children during the six years her marriage survived. Her husband, who had been forced into marriage by his family, deserted Sughra, moved out of the village, and married someone else. This event devastated Sughra’s life: she was the first woman in the village who was divorced, and she was undermined socially to the point of becoming an outcast. She was scorned by the villagers and suspicions about her character and virtue surfaced. She started living with her brother, much to his wife’s displeasure. Sughra did not like being a burden on her brother, but her early marriage had left her unprepared for the work she would have to take up in order to earn a living. Sughra had always had an intense desire to study. When she was a child she would take lunch to her school teacher father. She would see the boys studying and wished she could do the same. After her divorce she expressed the desire to study but was beaten up by her brothers, who suspected that she would run away with a man if allowed to go outside to study. After this she asked her nephews who went to school to teach her what they learned at school. One of her brothers found out and felt sorry for her, allowing an elder cousin to coach her on a regular basis at home. In four years’s time she appeared for her matriculation exam as a private candidate and then studied for the High School Certificate. She passed the exam at the same time the government opened a girl’s school in the village. Sughra is a woman of great courage, charged with a relentless spirit. She is also a born leader. Armed with common sense and a down-to-earth approach, Sughra feels strongly for the rural women. Her ultimate aim is to make it possible for women to speak to men in the streets without making people doubt their virtue. She has been successful in doing so in her village. Once ostracized by society, Sughra today is flooded with marriage proposals. She is the role model for the young girls of her village and beyond.