Monthly Archives: September 2010

Fatima Bhutto at the Havard Kennedy School – Pakistan’s Past and Future

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Photo Credit: topnews.in

Fatima Bhutto, granddaughter of Pakistani Prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and  niece of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke last night at the Harvard Kennedy School to promote her new book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir. Apart from her three books, including one poetry volume and one account of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Fatima works as a writer and poet and resides in Karachi, Pakistan. Her appearance at Harvard last night prompted an interesting conversation in the current state of Pakistan’s government, social services, and development.

After Fatima did a brief reading from Songs of Blood and Sword, there was a Q&A segment of the program, which touched on many areas including the need for greater access to education in Pakistan.  Fatima adamantly declared that education and healthcare in Pakistan are two of the most important concerns, neither of which are being addressed adequately. She offered a stunning example of how Pakistan recently failed to meet its goal of eradicating polio, not because Pakistani medical professionals could not produce the vaccine, but because the infrastructure to refrigerate the vaccine is not in place. Fatima made sure to note the irony in the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear country that cannot refrigerate its vaccines.  Regarding education, Fatima noted the phenomenon of “shell schools,” buildings that will be erected and photographed with a politician cutting the ribbon without any further assistance or administration. This point met some contention from the crowd, however, as some Pakistani students who claimed to be “products of Pakistan’s public schools” rebuffed Fatima’s statement. Fatima’s point was that until there can be uniform quality education in Pakistan, the work is not finished. The fact that there can be such a disconnect between experiences shows serious need for reform to state education.

Debate continued on various other issues including varied access to  healthcare in different areas and nationalization of industry, which one person contended may have stifled any movements towards entrepreneurship.  The dialogue produced as a result of Fatima’s comments was just an introduction to the problems that Pakistan is facing right now, and they may only be solved with the addition of many more voices to the debate on how best to address these issues. To conclude, Fatima boldly asserted that in Pakistan it is “more dangerous to keep quiet” about problems in the government and healthcare because to not speak out for fear of retribution means condoning an environment “where your child can contract fatal diarrhea,” as we see happening now in flood affected areas. Infrastructure, education and healthcare are crucial to reform in Pakistan, now we just need more voices like Fatima Bhutto’s reminding us of that every day.

Why not start the dialogue right now? What do you think are the main issues in Pakistan and how do you think they should be solved? For further information about Fatima’s story, pick up her new book, Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir. You can also check out Barakat’s programs in Pakistan to see how we are contributing to literacy efforts in Pakistan, as well as see how you can be a part of this movement!  Be sure to leave us a comment with your thoughts or tweet at us @barakatinc!

-Elizabeth Peyton

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Girls as Boys in Afghanistan: Raising Questions about Gender Issues

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Imagine you spent your life thinking, acting and socializing as a boy, only to find out that you were in fact, a girl. Not only that, but soon after your gender identity was completely altered, you had to get married to another boy. Such is the case for many adolescents in Afghanistan.

The New York Times has probed into this unique aspect of Afghan culture which has gone unrecognized by the majority of the world.  This idea of changing gender, which may seem unbelievable to people in Western Cultures is something that has gone on in Afghanistan, maybe for centuries. Practices like these allow us to stand back and ask, well what is gender, anyway? We are used to thinking of it as something that defines everything in our identities, right down to the hats we wear and the toys we play with as newborn children. Despite the major emphasis on gender differences in western cultures, however, there is still relative equality. In Afghanistan, however, society is structured so that men are still valued more and have more freedoms than women.

To deal with this reality, in an exhibit of what historian Nancy Dupree calls “creativity,” families will often dress up their young daughters as boys. If they do this, their “boys” will be allowed to leave the house and shop in markets freely. They will also give their families greater social standing within their communities because they have sons. Girls will assume these identities throughout their childhood and then oftentimes abruptly resume their female identities before marriage. This means that they can no longer leave the house as freely, that they must make all female friends and that they must get permission from their husbands for most things. This is a huge shock after the autonomy they had as children!

While people do not often suspect girls of masquerading as boys, this practice is not a rare occurrence in Afghanistan. Barakat’s own schools are no stranger to this phenomenon. Our Program Director, Arti Pandey wrote about this occurrence in the Boston Globe after observing it in a Barakat school in Qurghan District, Afghanistan.  Arti’s recap of Azaad’s story showed how this practice was used during the terror reign of the Taliban.

Now that people outside Afghanistan are starting to learn about it, it creates a new conversation about gender segregation and identity shifts. Is this a unique cultural facet that will allow the heavy restrictions on women in Afghanistan to stay in place, or is this a provisional practice that may allow for greater opportunities for Afghan women so that they may empower themselves in their youth and grow up with knowledge of greater freedoms? The fact is that this practice has been going on for so long (many of the mothers of girls masked as boys had done the same thing as children), but as more women are becoming educated and taking jobs in political, social and medical sectors, this could signal a shift that allows for greater freedoms for young women. Either way, the discussion about global views of gender won’t end here.

What do you think about this practice? Comment below or shoot us a tweet @barakatinc!

Food Crisis in Pakistan: Lasting Consequences of the Flood

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While news sources from across the world have been relaying images of devastation back from Pakistan, only minor exposure has been given to the greater ramifications of these floods. This is perhaps a combination of the magnitude of the immediate disaster and our inability to speculate  how much damage will remain once the waters have receded. Currently, relief efforts must be geared towards making sure that people have been rescued from affected areas and that refugee populations have been given some place to settle in lieu of their ruined homes and farms. Branches of the UN and other NGO’s, as well as governments abroad have been tirelessly raising money in order to stabilize displaced populations, but according to Al Jazeera, an effort to rebuild Afghanistan could take up to $15 billion (USD) and countless years.

Food Shortages spark frustration in Pakistan, Photo credit: © United Nations World Food Programme/Amjad Jamal 2010

Despite the state of the flooding disaster, one of the most  jarring long-term aspects of this flood is the effect of the food crisis on young populations. Pakistan, previously heavily reliant on agriculture, is now experiencing severe shortages in  food and clean water thanks to the devastation of farmlands and seed deposits, plus the general state of chaos.  Such widespread shortages are leading to malnutrition, especially in children. Nutritionists with the United Nations World Food Programme have put together packages consisting of high energy biscuits, cooking oil and flour to sustain refugees in settlement camps. Getting resources to those in need continues to be a problem, however,  especially for those who are not admitted to camps because they  fled their homes without proper documentation, as the BBC reports.

The food shortages mark an even more difficult transition for displaced people, but also severely threaten a new generation of Pakistani young people. Martin Mogwanja, UN humanitarian co-ordinator told Al Jazeera, “If nothing is done, an estimated 72,000 children, currently affected by severe malnutrition in the flood-affected areas, are at high risk of death.” This speculation tells us that should consequences of the flood not be mollified as soon as possible, this generation of Pakistani children may not have the chance to become educated and raise their standard of living. Rights to education and economic empowerment cannot be realized until threatened sectors of the Pakistani populations can overcome these unsafe conditions and rebuild all that was lost. While activities here at Barakat are being directed towards flood relief, and our collected funds have been distributed to families in Attock, our long-term goals of greater education opportunities for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India could be irreversibly stunted should external flood consequences like food shortages and spread of disease not be addressed just as swiftly.

If you’re interested in helping the thousands of women and children at risk for malnutrition and water-borne disease during this threatening time, DONATE to Barakat now and help abate this crisis before its damage becomes irreversible.

-Elizabeth Peyton