Category Archives: Pakistan

Girl’s School Attacked in Pakistan

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For many of us at Barakat, a step forward feels like it’s sometimes met with none other than a rude push right back.

For the past couple of months, Barakat has been working to establish a new scholarship program in our Pakistan schools for female students who’ve performed well academically and wish to pursue higher education. (To learn more about this initiative, check out our upcoming July newsletter, or read about our sister program in Afghanistan.)

But amid the fundraising, planning, and selections, we read the news.

According to an article in  Iran’s media organization, Press TV, a girls school in northwest Pakistan was bombed on Monday by unknown militants. Thankfully, there were no casualties, but the five-room schoolhouse was utterly  destroyed.

Destroyed girls school in Pakistan

Courtesy Press TV

The school was not one of  Barakat’s; it was a government-run school in the Sheik Baba area near Khar in the Bajuar agency region.

Although the militants remain unnamed, the Taliban, who outwardly opposes female education and has been responsible for many similar acts in the past, is highly suspected.

At times like these, it is difficult to understand why these acts of aggression are taken against those who are least capable of defending themselves, and it is easy to feel dismayed and let down.

But the government of Pakistan refuses to give up, and neither do we.

Pakistan has vowed that despite the violence, it will not shut down any of the girl’s schools.  And here at Barakat, we promise that no matter how many times we’re pushed, we’ll continue to move forward.

Click here to help.

Written by: Lisa DeBenedictis

Women Deliver conference talks maternal health

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At Barakat, we believe that educating women will also allow them to become better informed about their own health, and the health of their children.

By: Lisa DeBenedictis

The 2010 international Women Deliver conference began on Monday, June 7, in Washington D.C.

The conference’s focus is on maternal health, in conjunction with the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to significantly improve maternal health worldwide by 2015.

According to USA Today’s article about the conference, some of the highest rates of maternal deaths occur in two of the countries Barakat works in, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, according to the Women Deliver website, one in eight Afghan women will die from complications with pregnancy or childbirth.

At Barakat, not only do we believe that education is the way to become successful and empowered, but we also believe that education is the best way for women to become better informed and aware of both their own health, and the health of their children.

As a result, Barakat has instilled government-backed health care programs at the Mullah Karim Nazar School in Afghanistan (which opened on March 6, 2010) and at the Besh Kappa Surkh School in Afghanistan (which will be opening in September of 2010).

Both schools offer yearly physical and mental check-ups to each of its students, and even parents, if necessary. If an illness persists or becomes severe, Barakat also provides ways to help get the student to a hospital in Kabul. (Read more about Barakat’s Health Program’s updates here.)

Yesterday, the Women Deliver conference began on a window-shatteringly high note, with the announcement of a $1.5 billion donation from the Gates Foundation in grant money for maternal health.

But though a donation such as this is certainly amazing and inspiring, anyone can help.

It doesn’t take much, and it goes a long way: $40 sends a girl to a home-based literacy program for a year, $65 sends child to one of our elementary schools for a year, and $200 provides basic health care for 350 children for a month.

In the words of the Women Deliver’s organization themselves: will you deliver?

Click here to donate now.

Violence Toward Women Slowly Becoming Not OK in South Asia

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Passing laws against domestic violence may not guarantee safety for women in some parts of the world, but it is a start. Legislation has been proposed in Pakistan that would make domestic abuse illegal. It covers a broad spectrum of acts including emotional abuse, deprivation of financial means, and wrongful confinement. Currently, women can report their husbands for assault, but it is rarely punished and most often overlooked. This bill would go above and beyond covering atrocities such as acid burning, which is still extremely prevalent in Pakistan.

Another precedent was set in neighboring India last month, when the courts came down tough on the perpetrators of an honor killing. Five elders were sentenced to death or life sentences for killing a young man and woman of different sub-castes who eloped three years ago. Never before have the courts ruled so harshly on a practice that has, in the past, been considered a cultural practice. The five that were given the death sentence were the bride’s brother, cousins, and uncles. The local village administration leader was given a life sentence.

These actions are major steps toward insuring better protection of women in societies in which their intrinsic value may not be considered as great as men. However, these laws and legal precedents will only protect some, and often, those in rural areas will not benefit. Police officers tend to look the other way when horrific crimes are committed, especially in cultures like Pakistan, where ultra-conservative Islam prevails, and in India, where the caste system is still deeply engrained in societal values.

Many women in Pakistan continue to be victims of horrific abuse such as acid burnings. Their husbands and sometimes in-laws will throw acid on these women, horribly scaring them and sometimes causing blindness and permanent restrictions in movement. One woman recalled her crime for such a punishment: refusing to immediately wash the dishes after a meal.

Laws against domestic abuse will only go so far. One doctor suggested punishment for those who sell the acid as well. This is another positive step in the right direction, but even more must be done. The best way to improve the lives of these women is to improve their social standing. These areas are extremely poor and usually illiterate. Women who are victims of abuse often have no other choice but to stay with their husbands because of economic concerns. At Barakat we believe that women in Pakistan who are educated are much less likely to be victims of domestic abuse, or at the least, will not stick around in dangerous situations. If women understand their rights and their options, they hold the power to determine their futures.

The Acid Survivors Foundation, an organization based in Bangladesh, has helped some of these women restore their dignity. One woman has been learning to knit sweaters and can once again take care of her children despite damage to her eyes, which has left her completely blind. Another vows to open a beauty shop to prove to her husband and others that she is a survivor and the acid burning did not cause her to lose hope.

The Other Victims of Extremism–The Mothers

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In July of 2009, President Obama made a speech in Ghana in which he said, “It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars.” Although the conscription of children in wars is a phenomenon often associated with Africa, it is a problem that has infected many other areas of the world as well. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with other countries in the region, the use of children by extremist militants is systematic and disturbing.

Watching videos that depict the training of children to become “warriors,” it is hard not to ask yourself, “How could you ever send your son here?” That’s because from a western perspective, it’s incomprehensible. In these areas, however, families are so poor that it seems to them that the best future for their children is religious schools. These schools provide necessities that the parents sometimes can’t. Yet they sometimes also provide something else. A future headed toward hate and, death.

Of course, this is not always the case. In the West the term madrassa (which in Arabic literally means, a place where learning or studying is done) has gotten a negative connotation mistaken to mean “terrorist training camps.” But most madrassas are simply schools. Religious or secular, madrassa can refer to a variety of different kinds of learning institutions. They usually refer to schools that provide training to become imams, or religious leaders. A very small portion, however, are training children to become soldiers in a “holy war.”

In targeting the root of this problem, it would be difficult to go after those who run these schools. For them, the ideology is set, their mission seems clear, and if one “school” is destroyed another could easily pop up the next day. Targeting the values of a society would be the alternative. In an article by the Christian Science Monitor, mothers of children recruited for extremism in Pakistan’s South Waziristan express their concerns for their sons. Their placement in society as women of very conservative, traditional families makes their opinion stifled and suppressed. They are afraid to protest the action of family members, but do not agree with them.

Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, believes that educating women can transform these societies. Not only would education bring greater economic prosperity for their families and communities, it could also help change the currents of extremism that so brutally take hold of these areas. At Barakat, we agree. We believe that the best future for the children of these areas is one of hope, not one of ignorance. In our upcoming printed newsletter we also discuss how important educating boys is. These mothers currently cannot provide a better future for their sons. It may seem hopeless but it doesn’t have to be. Education can be the first step to a brighter future for these little boys and their mothers.

Pakistan’s Bold Fashionistas

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When you think of fashion, the first word that comes to mind probably isn’t brave. Here in the United States being a fashion designer may be hard work and may require a tremendous amount of creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily call for courage. In Pakistan, however, the faint-hearted need not apply.

Fashion week in Lahore, Pakistan just came to a close last Friday. The show was a tremendous success, and not only because a bomb didn’t go off. Some designers say that they weren’t even considering a terrorist attack. They brushed off the Western media for asking questions that seemed stereotypical. Not all of Pakistan is made up of terrorist, they reminded the camera crews.

The coordinators of the event were obviously more concerned about security, since intelligence officers and the bomb squad were both present, and the location of the event was not even listed on the invitations. According to one model, death threats were issued before the show. It was the first year in which the government supported the show, and recognized the Pakistan Fashion Design council. The show featured low cut, backless, and sleeveless outfits, showing just as much skin as any Western fashion show might. What was missing however, was the veil. Aamna Isani, a freelance fashion writer, noted that the show and the fashion it produced would only attract a small amount of women in Pakistan, mainly the elite. The irony, she said, was that the audience was more comfortable seeing skin, than the veil. Hopefully with more acceptance, these type of events can incorporate more traditional fashion as well.

Downplaying the statement that the designers and models at this fashion show were making would be a mistake. Before they were women confined to the home, flexing their bored and creative minds. Now they are bold professionals, showing the world their talents, despite the extremely high risk they are taking. Whether it is a woman in Afghanistan getting up every morning to educate herself, or a woman in Pakistan breaking the walls of a social taboo, it is a commendable act for them to exercise the freedom to pursue their dreams. Even in the most high-risk areas of the world.

Fundraising at Mantra

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Barakat held a fundraiser in downtown Boston at Mantra last Thursday evening.  The event was a huge success and guests enjoyed Mantra’s French-Indian cuisine while supporting a great cause.  The evening featured a silent auction on various items from Karma, a local shop that sells fine imported crafts from Tibet, Nepal, and India.  The night also featured a raffle for gift certificates as well as other exciting prizes.  

David Boeri from WBUR’s Radio Boston hosted the evening as master of ceremonies.  Barakat’s executive director, Damon Luloff gave a brief introduction about Barakat and then the founders, Chris Walter and Habibullah Karimi, followed with a short description of Barakat’s history and how the organization was started.  Mariam Raquib was also a featured speaker.  Mariam was forced to flee Pakistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.  While living in Pakistan, she met Afghans living in refugee camps, and this experience profoundly shaped her views about the importance of human rights and the rights of children to receive an education.  

South Asian dance groups provided the entertainment for the evening.  Students from Burlington High School performed a combination of three Bollywood songs combining hip-hop and traditional dance.  Tibetan musicians sang next, followed by Dance Philippines, a nonprofit organization composed of professional Filipino-American volunteers to bring attention to the Philippine culture through music and dance. Boston College Masti, a dance troupe of the South Asian Students Association at Boston College combined traditional Indian and fusion music in an inspiring routine. Northeastern University’s Kinematics and a Tibetan masked dance were also among the fabulous performances that brought attention to South Asian culture.

Without Phuni Meston of Karma Imported crafts, this event would not have been possible.  Phuni is from Tibet and had been relocated as a young girl to Southern India where she was a victim of human trafficking and was eventually brought to the United States.  In 1995 Phuni was one of the Tibetan delegates who participated in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing advocating for social justice and Tibetan women’s rights.  She continues to speak publicly about her experiences to create awareness and work towards ending human trafficking.

Barakat’s event at Mantra raised over $5000 for literacy programs in South Asia!

Barakat strives to decrease the gender gap

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The Gender Gap Index: A Reliable Resource for Analyzing Country Development

After giving a speech to a mainly male audience in Saudi Arabia, Bill Gates recalled a member of the audience asking him if it was realistic for Saudi Arabia to be ranked as one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010.  Gates responded saying, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country you’re not going to get too close to the top 10.”

Gates was on to something.  When analyzing international problems such as poverty and lack of education, we tend to focus on a country’s level of wealth and access to resources.  This narrow focus neglects many variables and does not take into account factors, such as gender equality, that influence major issues.  Thus, it is important to add an additional measurement that is independent of country income and development to solve global issues.  The World Economic Forum developed the gender index which has become one of the best indicators of national development as universal equality and a country’s development go hand in hand. 

The World Economic Forum, a Geneva-based nonprofit organization that focuses on social development as a cornerstone of economic development, created the gender gap index and provides updates as well as other information on this topic. The gender gap index examines the status of men and women in relation to one another based on individual country statistics.  

There are 14 different variables that contribute to the female to male ratio, and they are compiled from various international sources.  The purpose of this index is to provide a credible country ranking and to create awareness of the challenges that countries face in closing gender gaps.   This information is vital because reducing these gaps creates opportunities for a greater and more successful world.  

The latest Gender Gap Index can be viewed here.  There are economic, educational, and political factors that must be taken into account when determining the gender gap index.  The factors are listed in the table below:

Economic Variables Female/male labor force participation Female/male wage for similar work Female/male income disparity Female/male in high positions
Education Variables Female/male literacy rate Female/male primary enrollment Female/male secondary enrollment Gross tertiary enrollment
Political Variables Female/males in Parliament Females/males at ministerial level Number of years of a female/male head of state  

This index is linked to economic performance in a key way.  A country’s economic performance is based on how well it is utilizing its talent base. Women make up 50% of the base population, so the countries that develop resources to benefit their entire population, will eventually perform the highest economically.  If governments make gender equality a high priority of public policy, their overall development will improve drastically, and many existing transnational problems such as poverty, extremism, hunger, and conflict will be much more easily resolved.  

Several of the most developed and industrialized countries are in the top ten ranking in the gender gap index.  The top ten in order are Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, South Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Philippines, and Lesotho.  Not surprisingly, at this point in time countries in South Asia are ranked very low according to the 2009 report.  India is ranked 114 out of 134 countries included in the Gender Gap Index and Pakistan is ranked 132 out of 134 countries.  Afghanistan is not included in the Gender Gap Index due to lack of reliable information, but it is surely very low on the list.  

This index is vitally important to Barakat because it provides a measure of gender equality and demonstrates its effect on national development.  Economic development is impossible without social development.  Gender disparities severely hinder a country’s ability to pull itself out of poverty.  Barakat empowers women and aids in decreasing the gap between males and females so that successful development becomes feasible.

We at Barakat believe that development in this region, and in all poverty-stricken countries, is dependent upon every individual’s skills and talents, not just half the population.  Barakat strives to make the gender gap between females and males in the education sector smaller as it currently works for the equal education of men and women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.  By focusing on education for women and girls, as well as training in human and women’s rights, we hope to make education for girls a norm for South Asian society.  Female empowerment is the key to poverty alleviation and development.  It is a challenge to formally educate women in schools because of the taboos against co-ed schools, the distance of the schools from the home, and the fact that many schools have only male teachers.  Barakat’s literacy courses are ideal because they provide women with education close to their homes and many are run solely by female teachers.  Barakat overcomes obstacles for female empowerment and educates women and the community so that the gender gap in South Asia can decrease and communities can bring themselves out of poverty.  

Barakat at Mantra!

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Thursday, November 12 from 6:30-8:30 pm

Come join Barakat and Karma as we celebrate South Asian culture with music, dance and food!  Enjoy a taste of French-Indian cuisine from Mantra, one of the hottest restaurants in downtown Boston, and get an exclusive performance by local music and dance groups.  Tickets are $50, and all proceeds benefit Barakat’s work to promote education for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  Hosted by David Boeri from WBUR’s Radio Boston.

Reserve your tickets here!

Or join us for the After Party starting at 9pm for just $5 featuring a live performance from KINEMATIX and music from DJ Rob EG. All proceeds support Barakat’s literacy programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India!

Walk for Literacy was a success!

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Barakat’s 2nd Annual Walk for Literacy took place this weekend and it was a huge success!  Walkers were ready to go at 10:30 and very enthusiastic to support literacy regardless of the rain!  

The students from Pierce Elementary School were especially excited about the event.  They spent the weeks leading up to the Walk raising money and promoting the event as well as writing a blog about their efforts.

Damon gave a brief introduction and thanked everyone for making it out to Cambridge followed by Habibullah Karimi who took the stage to discuss the cause and what it means to him.  Habibullah is one of Barakat’s founders and he is originally from Afghanistan.  Habibullah discussed the importance of educating youth as it enlightens individuals and brings light into their lives rather than darkness.  He is a true believer in the power of education.

SherBaz Ali Khan was our next speaker, an intern at Barakat who is originally from Pakistan.  He gave a very moving speech about the cause, its importance, what it means to him, and what it means to the people of South Asia.  This event comes at a very unfortunate time for South Asia, particularly Pakistan, as schools have been shut down in the region following an attack by a suicide bomber on a university in Islamabad.

Moderate points of view are a common side effect of increased access to education and opportunity.  It is proven that in communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan that have higher rates of literacy, the Taliban has less of an influence.  With access to greater opportunities, it is less likely that individuals will be drawn to a militant organization such as the Taliban.  It is no surprise then, that schools are often targeted for attacks.  Education represents a threat. 

Sherbaz went on to discuss how lucky we are here in the United States because the government would never shut down all of the schools in the country.  Something like this is unheard of in America.  

Arthur, a sixth grader, recently wrote in the Pierce School Walk for Literacy blog that learning about this situation “really makes you think about how lucky you are to live somewhere where you just have to fret about homework everyday, not war.”

Despite the risks that they face, girls continue to make great efforts to receive an education.  The BBC’s Hunger to Learn series has followed the lengths that individuals will go to receive an education.  In one instance, teachers were threatened by the Taliban after they had taken control of Swat but administrators decided to keep the school open regardless.  They complied with demands by the Taliban that they all wear burkas and the Taliban agreed to allow the school to stay open.  Unfortunately, the Taliban did not keep its promise and the school was destroyed shortly afterwards.  Because the Swat Valley has come back under Pakistani control, this school was able to open again although it was not repaired.  

Efforts by the Taliban have hindered students from achieving to their full potential and many fall behind in their studies.  Despite these grim facts, many of the students and teachers have continued to attend their lessons and study in the shambles that were their classrooms because they truly recognize the value of an education.  

Barakat is not immune to the threats that the Taliban imposes on students and teachers trying to advance their communities.  Security for Barakat’s schools remains the number one issue both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Though threats from extremists do permeate the communities we serve and have negatively affected our school attendance, there is still substantial turnout from both boys and girls.  This shows their bravery and their love of learning.  Those who use violence against education are weak and misguided, and need education more than anything to realize the strongest connection: that of a community who pulls together peacefully for progress.  Those who choose education are strong because strong people choose to communicate with words, respect, and peace.  

Barakat’s Founders in Boston!

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Barakat recently welcomed a visit from Chris Walter and Habibullah Karimi, co-founders of Barakat, into the office for a Question-and-Answer session with the staff and interns.  It was a great opportunity and we were excited to talk about new developments and Barakat’s direction in the future!  The visit began with a discussion of the beginning of Barakat as an organization and concluded with questions from our staff members about various topics of importance to our cause.  

Barakat began as a carpet making venture to generate income during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  As the Russians took over the region, Afghans had two choices:  fight alongside the Soviets or fight alongside the mujahideen.  In response, millions of Afghans fled –women and children by road, and men through the trails at night.  Many fled to Pakistan, where the government was struggling to provide public schools for its own citizens, never mind the refugee community.  This is where Barakat’s work began.

Barakat began in 1987 as the Ersari Turkmen Weaving Project in the refugee camps of Pakistan.  The purpose of the project was to teach weavers techniques in carpet production.  Cultural Survival provided a grant and the project became very successful and generated a great deal of profits.  Profits were received by Yayla Tribal Rugs, Chris Walter’s Cambridge based company and were then used towards funding Barakat’s projects.  

Barakat built its first school in 1994 in Attock, Pakistan to provide the refugee community with the chance to better their own lives.  At the time teachers faced a great deal of difficulty convincing parents to send their daughters to school because they did not see a valid purpose for educating girls.  Many parents felt that the carpet weaving industry that was generating income at the time was sufficient; education, they said, was a waste of time.

Chris and Habibullah were not deterred, and they called a meeting of some of the most influential people in the community, including the tribal elders.  They emphasized the need for progress in the community and the value of education. To reach out to parents who remained uninterested in the newly established school, schoolteachers traveled to families’ homes to share their own stories of how education had given them new opportunities in life.  These teachers, primarily Pakistani women along with some Afghan women understood the culture and community concerns and were successful in convincing parents of the invaluable opportunities that education provides.  As time went on, Chris and Habibullah opened three more schools to meet the increased demand for education.  Girls that had graduated from the schools were instrumental in bringing more girls from the communities to enroll.

Despite various successes, there are still a number of challenges.  In 2001, when the Taliban was kicked out, there was a much greater sense of positivity and this resulted in a higher rate of female enrollment.  The recent resurgence of Taliban control has generated hesitation and fear about the safety of girls and the safety of their families.  Thus far, Barakat has been successful because the name itself, being of Muslim origin, has a positive and powerful resonance for South Asia.

Another key to the safety and security of the organization is the fact that Barakat is able to sustain a sense of legitimacy among members of the community. Barakat Afghanistan works with community leaders to help maintain this legitimacy in the villages in which it works.  At the same time, although there has been success in enrolling children in school, Chris noted that in Afghanistan “there is still a whole generation coming along in parts of the country that don’t have an education.”  Barakat hopes to expand its literacy programs and build more schools.  In the future, one of our greatest goals is to be able to fund students who pursue higher education after completing Barakat’s literacy courses.  

Opportunity is the key to building peace in war torn countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Chris highlighted the fact that “most [militants] are not ideologically strongly committed to the Taliban.  It’s just that they have no education, no jobs–the Taliban gives them money, pays them well–it’s a job.”  Barakat seeks to provide opportunity in South Asia where options are limited because, as Chris and Habibullah emphasized, “education sheds light and dispels the darkness of war.”