Monthly Archives: February 2010

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.

A Walk Through Jalapur

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Arti writes from India…

“Everything gets done on the paper, nobody really comes to see how we are doing,” I was told in response to my question about

a woman in Jalapur

whether the local education official had sent anyone to do the survey of adult illiterates (15-35 years) in Jalalpur basti. The truth behind the above statement was completely apparent and alarming because, according to the 2007-08 survey done by the district officials of Bhadohi, there are only 17 illiterates in this age group in Jalalpur. I believe I met about 15 of those in my one trip to Jalapur. The odds are that there are many more to be found in this basti of a few thousand people!

Jalalpur is a small, densely packed slum in the city of Bhadohi. Bhadohi district is one of the main centers of the carpet-weaving belt of India. It lies in the populous and utterly backward state of Uttar Pradesh, racked by government corruption and apathy.

Walking through Jalapur, I asked, “Why is all this garbage lying here?” I was informed that the Nagar Palika (the city municipal body) uses this particular area, packed with people and children, as the dumping ground for trash from everywhere in the city.

Because I was so unprepared for what I would see in Jalalpur, I took my one-year old son with me. The filth, the utter squalor of the slum and of many of the residents there took its toll on him. Children, dirty and in torn shreds, looking badly in need of better nutrition were all around. I saw a young girl, not even capable yet of taking care of herself, with a three-month old in her arms. Both were so malnourished that the three-month old could have been mistaken for a one-month old. My own son came down with a fever that very night!

I started inquiring of their mothers about whether the children go to school at all. These were some of the responses I received:

“She was not attending school regularly, and dropped out after one year.”

“My son failed one grade, and then left school.”

“He did not come home and do his homework, his grades were very bad – he left school.”

There is no doubt a general understanding, even in urban slums like Jalalpur, that schooling is the way to get out of the cycle of poverty; but there is also, no doubt, a real lack of understanding of the effort required in schooling on the part of parents and children. Partly because these parents are illiterate and they themselves don’t comprehend the schooling process.

One thing that became very clearly to me as I stood with two generations of women who had not been educated was how inseparably linked a woman’s wellbeing is with that of her child. This fact was staring me in the face the way it hadn’t thorugh all the research articles I’d read. If women are better educated, then they are better informed. This means that their children are better cared for.  If they are not educated, the health of their children is adversely affected. It sets them on the path they are to take in life, whether it is one of progress, or one of stagnation. It determines whether they are caught up in the cycle of poverty, or whether they are able to break free.

I came away from Jalalpur feeling their palpable sense of need, though no one made any demands of me or required that I, as a development professional or as someone better off than them, should provide them a service of any sort.

Every medium and large city in India has slums like Jalalpur, inhabited by the low-caste—those who perceive of themselves as powerless. There are thousands of Jalalpurs in India and millions of people living in them – men and women who are bringing up children to grow more cities such as their own. Where and how will this cycle end, and how can we best intervene in an effective fashion –is the challenge we face.

Education Under Attack

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Sitting in my classroom at Northeastern University I’m hardly thinking about my safety. I’m not thinking about a bomb going off, and I’ve never missed a class because of a possible attack. There have, of course, been incidents in the U.S. of tragic shootings, but these are few and far between compared to other countries. I doubt that young women around the world feel quite as safe as I do at school. They probably do think about their security every morning, and yet they are still determined to learn.

A new report released by UNESCO highlights the issue of security around the world—32 countries experienced attacks on educational institutions in the last three years. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India experienced some of the most intense increase of attacks. Whether it is the Taliban in Pakistan or the Maoists in India, groups around the world are extremely opposed to quality education, specifically for women. In Afghanistan alone, the number of attacks on schools almost tripled in one year, going from 242 to 670.

These attacks have various motives, ranging from political to social to religious. Sometimes the attacks have come from a government, such as the UN school in Gaza, which faced fire from Israel during the 2008 Gaza war. Or from terrorist organizations, which either are directly targeting the civilians, or are trying to weaken the government in power by weakening infrastructure. Either way, innocent children are the victims.

This ought to be a major concern. At Barakat we reduce parents’ fears by coming to students instead of them coming to us. We also provide transportation to and from school for teachers, who have been major targets for attacks as well. Either way, these children, and particularly women, face a major risk everyday when they decide to attend school. One day I hope to do something truly courageous; these women do it everyday.

U.S. Puts International Women’s Rights on Agenda

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Last week the International Violence Against Women Act was introduced in both the House and the Senate.  The bill, which is supported by both democrats and republicans, would put the global effort to end abuse against women, high up on the United States’ agenda.  The bill would help as many as 20 low-income nations, where 175 million is to be provided in aid over five years. Many specifications are included in the bill such as the training of military and police forces overseas to help prevent violence against women in places like Afghanistan. It also calls for the United States to respond to violent and horrific acts against women in times of conflict, within three months.

Those who are meant to benefit most from the bill are women living in poverty or in countries in conflict. Women in parts of the world such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often suffer from severe sexual abuse.  Although this is of extreme importance in these countries, violence against women is not a concentrated issue. Statistics on violence are often vague and misconstrued because in many countries women cannot report violence, and even if they do, there is no possibility of reprisal. Even so, it is widely thought that about 70% of women worldwide have been either sexually or physically abused at one point in their lives.

Representative Bill Delahunt linked violence against women with terrorism, when he pointed out that places that serve as breeding grounds for terrorist organizations, often have the worst records in abuse against women as well. This may have been a driving reason for some politicians to support the bill, and if not, it should be. Promoting democracy includes promoting the role of women. You cannot have one without the other. Whether women are at home taking care of their families, of in high office in the government, or even running their own business, their health and wellbeing is essential to the wellbeing of the whole country. Violence against women should be a concern in its own right, but in case you need another reason, national security is it. If women have more power, extremists who degrade women will struggle to gain support. Without the power of women, a democracy cannot function. And without proper health and security, women cannot function.

Disparities in Education Aid Between Children and Adults

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Arti writes from India…

Barakat Students Leaving School

“130 rupees is the per pupil expenditure on Adult Education and in comparison for primary education it is 730 rupees,” Dr. Shah informed me. He continued to appraise me further by adding, “The Adult Education facilitator who is responsible for running the adult literacy courses at the village level is supposed to work for free; while primary school teachers get paid Rs.7000/month.” I knew, of course, that the spending on adult education, by the government (and also by NGOs) was disproportionate as compared to the spending on primary education, but I did not know that it was so blatant .

I suppose that adds to the list of reasons I have for believing that adult literacy is an area of development that is begging for attention. I acknowledge, however, that as I travel from Delhi, the country’s capital, to Lucknow (a state capital) to Bhadohi (a district center in Uttar Pradesh), I am struck evermore that even in the two years that I have been away, India has become so much more chaotic and that challenges abound at every step. The distance between the haves and the have nots continues to burgeon – as cycles and small cars struggle for space on tiny roads; jarring sights of beggars, mentally disabled, physically handicapped crowd the roads at crosswalks and little children performing like monkeys vie for attention at red lights.

The infrastructure has obviously improved in Delhi and Lucknow, but remains as run-down as before in Bhadohi and I imagine, the villages are untouched too. India is not an easy place to survive and I felt somewhat overwhelmed on my way to Bhadohi in the train, thinking, “How am I ever going to make a difference here – it is too much – it is coming apart at the seams. How will I be able to do a project that really has an impact. What was I thinking?”

Now that I am here in Bhadohi and working in the field, I know that I can find my way around very well – instinctively – and I know precisely where to put one foot and then the next – so that should show us the way forward…even if I feel a sense of the immensity of the context that surrounds me.

Aghanistan School System to Learn From Turkey

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Girls in Barakat Program

The process of democratization is always a long one, and usually painful. No other country knows that better than Afghanistan. Torn apart by war, Afghanistan is struggling to find a way to normalize society again. One of the most important ways to do this is to focus on education. Abdullah Gül, president of Turkey, has pledged to help Afghanistan do exactly that.

Turkey is one of the few truly democratic nations in the region, and has found a way to reconcile a majority Muslim population with a secular government. Their schools incorporate Islam and also boast a very high population of educated women. Because Afghanistan wants to continue to incorporate religion into everyday life, including education, they will adopt Turkey’s model of 40% Islamic teaching and 60% normal curriculum. This system is called imam-hatip and has been extremely successful in Turkey. Six schools have opened already and 62 more are to be opened in the spring. The proposal also includes funding by Turkey for more scholarships for Afghan students to study in Turkish Universities.

Barakat recognizes the effectiveness of respecting culture and religion, and therefore incorporates Islam into their programs as well. Curriculums for the Besh Kapa School, the Mullah Kareem Nazar School, and the home-based literacy courses for girls and women, all include an Islamiyat course, the study of Islam. This is comforting for parents of young girls that are hesitant to send their daughters to school. Thanks to Turkey, hopefully children in other parts of Afghanistan will soon strive in this learning environment too.

The Problem With Private Schools in India

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Students in India

Parents in New York who are stressed about private schools accepting their children, ought to be glad they aren’t in New Delhi. Yesterday was the deadline for schools to post their final decisions on which children would be accepted for the upcoming year. Because there has been such chaos and arbitrary practices in accepting students, a court-appointed commission set new rules in standards for accepting students. The combination of India’s exploding middle-class, and the practical collapse of the public school system, has led private schools to go overboard with absurd filtering processes such as outlandish bribes.

However, the new standard seems to be skewed as well. It is based on a 100-point system that measures things such as parent’s occupations, siblings, and distance from the school. These guidelines, parents complain, are unfair for single children families and discriminate based on characteristics that are unimportant. Not to mention that this point system is only in effect for New Delhi. Other cities around the country are still operating on an extremely corrupt system. More importantly, however, is where that leaves the poor: stuck in the public school system that is non-functioning, with no hope of paying bribes or becoming accepted to private schools on their own.

Barakat aims to provide schooling for this portion of the population. The public school system has little resources and unmotivated staff. Barakat provides schooling in the Bhadohi district in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a very poor area in which parents often have to choose whether to send their children to school, or send their children to work. Barakat’s free education system provides quality learning to curve the practice of abusive child labor.

With such an uproar among parents in New Delhi, officials may have to find a new system that values the right characteristics in students. Hopefully other cities around the country can adopt fair standards as well, and offer families an alternative to the unacceptable and failing public school system.