Global Fund President and CEO, Kavita Ramdas, just returned from her family vacation in Pakistan. Between a wedding and family gatherings, Kavita and her daugher Mira spent a day visiting Global Fund grantee, The Rural Women's Welfare Organization in Sanghar, a town in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh. Mira wrote this report and took these photographs for a school assignment and has generously shared them with us.
I spent the winter break in Pakistan. Much of our visit was focused on my oldest cousin's wedding. After the wedding, I planned to spend some time with my cousins and relax like I normally do, so when my mom announced that we were going to visit a small group called Rural Women's Welfare Organization (RWWO), I was not particularly filled with excitement. The thought of waking up at 6:00 am and driving for four hours to some remote village was not a pleasing one. What I did not know was that I was about to learn one of the most important lessons of my life.
As we settled into the small air conditioned taxi and began talking with the RWWO representative, I slowly began to realize how much it meant to the people of the RWWO for my mother and I to come out to Sanghar to visit them. Shahzeman, who is one of two male volunteers at RWWO, was a friendly and dedicated person. He told us how he had taken a train all the way to Karachi from Sanghar where RWWO is located. He informed us that he had spent the night in a small hotel and woken up at 4 a.m. to come pick us up in a taxi at our house. I was touched by how happy he was to meet my mom and I truly began to understand how her work has affected the lives of many individuals.
As we drove away from the big city of Karachi, the road began to grow smaller and was no longer paved. Sanghar is a small town in the mainly rural province of Sindh. At first, on the outskirts all we saw were fields full of crops and cattle. As we finally drove into the town, our taxi slowed down in a small downtown area. Children pressed their faces up to the car, which was probably the only Karachi taxi that they had ever seen in their lives, and smiled and pointed at us. I felt a little embarrassed and also greatly moved. I watched the small faces peering in through a window and looking into what was a whole new world for them. As I took out my digital camera and snapped a picture, the children ran away, surprised by what had so suddenly blinded them.
Before I knew it the car pulled into a tiny gully (urdu for alley) to park and we got out. My mother looked around. We saw three women standing out in a market that was totally dominated by men. My mom rushed over to them, with me close behind her. The crowded dusty roads were not ones that I had ever encountered in Palo Alto and were not ones that I felt could maneuver on alone. Our hosts hugged us and began to lead the way to where the organization was located. We walked through a narrow doorway and up a steep flight of stairs. As we climbed, I began to hear the faint sound of singing. As we got to the top of stairs, the singing grew louder and louder until we finally stepped onto a roof area and we saw many many different women all standing around to welcome us. One by one they came up to us and put beautiful flower garlands on our necks. They also threw rose petals at us, which is a very respectful way to greet important people. My mom nudged me and told me to take off the garlands and to give them to the youngest and the eldest people in the community. I did so, and the look of gratification on their faces was the best Christmas present I have ever received.
The founder of the Rural Women's Welfare Organization, Imam Zadi, showed us into a small room with an overhead projector, one table and fourteen chairs. The women present were members of the board of the organization and were keen to present a PowerPoint before the electricity failed. In the presentation, we learned all about the work RWWO does to help educate and empower women in the small villages nearby. They have helped build many schools, wells, and health clinics. After the PowerPoint, my mom answered a few questions and then we went on a site visit.
A site visit is when you go to a place that you directly helped by donating money. I was very excited to meet the people that lived in the villages and looked restlessly out of the car window as we drew closer and closer. When we got to the women's center, I was struck at the level of poverty these people were living in. The space we were meeting in was just a small hut made of earth and bricks that the women had built themselves. Again we were greeted us with rose petals and garlands, but I knew that it must have been a stretch for them to have bought the petals and garlands. My mother told me to offer the garlands back to some of the women and I did. They led us to a small shady area where we were going to speak with the women whose lives have been touched by RWWO's work. I must confess that I was not exactly keen on the idea of sitting on the ground with flies all around me, but I knew this was the best they had to offer, and it was good enough. As we sat down an old lady immediately caught my attention. She had creases all along her face and I was curious to know her story. I soon found out.
" I had a miscarriage" she said, "a dead baby was inside of me." She continued on, " I found out about the baby's death when I was five months pregnant with her. As soon as my husband found out, he beat me and then left me because he thought that I was cursed. I was lost, I did not know what to do to get the baby out of my body. I carried that dead rotting baby inside of me for ten months." At this point I gasped and I could almost hear my heart ripping out of my chest. She continued with her story, "I was so lucky to finally meet up with RWWO. They helped me and paid for the necessary operation to get the baby out of me. I am so glad that I am part of this organization, because everyone here treats each other kindly."
I was so touched by her story that I was eager to learn about what other people had gone through in this strong community of women. I noticed another lady, who was sitting with her face covered and not saying a word. My mother gently asked her in Urdu how she had become involved with RWWO. It took some coaxing but after a while she shared her story. " I was married at a very young age and had my first child very quickly after marriage." She continued on, " my husband was not happy that it was girl so we quickly had two more kids hoping each time for a boy, but none came. Finally our last one was a boy, but by then my husband was being abusive, and I ran away with my four kids. I raised them with love and care, they all grew up well, but then I fell on hard times. As soon as this happened, my son who was all grown up ran away. He left and never came back to help me. I watched helplessly as all my girls grew up and got married. I was now old and had nothing, all four of my children had left me. I was on the streets with no food, when the women of RWWO helped me find a home. I know that no one will ever leave me here."
I really felt for this women and what she had been through. I noticed a common theme between all the different stories I heard. At the end of each story there was always hope.
Then, some of the young girls of the community shared a story with us. They said that there used to be a school for the girls of the community that RWWO founded with a grant that a larger organization gave to them. But, the grant money ran out a year ago. Since the teacher was not paid, the school was closed down, and with it, the dreams of many young girls. My mother asked if there was a government school near by. The answer came from a mother who seemed to be holding back her tears. The mother said that there was a school, but it was 10 km away and the only means of transportation for the kids were their own feet. They used to send their boys to that school, since they thought that it was not as safe for girls to be making the long journey, but they had recently stopped sending anyone. When my mother asked for the reason a hushed silence filled the village, as one woman spoke.
"We have stopped sending our children to that school, because a boy was recently killed on his way." I stopped clicking pictures with my camera, and sat still. No one seemed to move an inch, not even to swat away a fly. And then my mother said softly in Urdu. " I am so sorry." And I knew that she was.
I wish that I could have done something to make that moment okay, but I knew that even if every comedian in the world had been there, it would not have been enough. At that moment, I began to realize something. In the eyes of every girl and woman I looked at, I did not see grief, or fear, or anger. All l I saw was determination and hope for the future. I felt like, at that exact moment in time, I learned something that I hope I will never forget. I learned that those who have nothing, have the power and ability to hope for everything. And it was true. If a team is down three goals in a soccer game at half time, they rarely have any hope. But, these poor villagers, who have nothing, except what they make with their own two hands, hope for everything. This is a lesson that I think the world should take very seriously. If I were in the situation of one of those village girls, I would find it hard to dream. But these girls all have the drive and the determination to do what seems impossible. You need to work really hard for dreams to come true and that is what the women and girls in Sanghar are prepared to do.