OVERVIEW: Ms Shaheen Attiq ur Rahman is the Vice Chairperson and the founder of Bunyad Foundation, a 25-year-old institute, that has been transforming the lives of many intellectually, socially, and financially. The NGO has won various awards including the Communications Medal, UNESCO, Paris, 1998 for innovative work in literacy; King Sejong Prize, UNESCO, Paris, 2002 for the best NGO for promotion of literacy; and Presidential Award of Aziz-e-Fazilat for literacy promotion.

BR Research recently had a conversation with Ms Shaheen Attiq ur Rahman, who has also worked as a Minister of Social Welfare, Women Development and Bait-ul-Mall for the development of society, as Chairperson of Red Cross to deal with the disasters and rehabilitation, and as Chairperson of Punjab Social Services Board. Following are the edited excerpts of the (virtual) conversation:

BR Research: We believe that Bunyad's key objective is alleviating poverty through education. How are you doing that and what are your key focus areas and geographic coverage?

Shaheen Attiq ur Rahman: The first step must be education. Unfortunately, in our country nearly 40 percent population is completely illiterate; worst are the youth. Therefore, they become dependent on others. What we are doing in Bunyad is giving rural youths literacy so that they can broaden their vision and understand the concept of improving their lives. Amongst rural youth, our concentration is especially on women or females in the rural areas of more than nine districts of Punjab. We are very fortunate that their response is very warm and gratifying.

You must understand that the poor countries like Pakistan have to depend on agriculture. Agriculture, since the last three decades has not been given proper attention by any government. Primarily for the vote bank of most political parties, the concentration has been on the urban cities rather than the rural areas.

The rural areas are controlled by feudal lords and they don't like to have individual thinking in rural areas. Bunyad is trying to link the rural areas with urban areas through learning. We are taking lined departments down to them for training. We are concentrating 75 percent of our work for women, because women are the first school for the child and a change maker of the whole community. It is very sad that she does all the work in villages and in the home while getting no money for her labour. We are gradually trying to give her confidence and get her accepted as an earning member of her household so that she gets the same respect as the man of the household.

BRR: Does your geographic coverage also include urban slum areas?

SA: Yes of course it does because slowly, in big cities like Lahore and Multan, a lot of people come to search for jobs and they settle around the urban centers but not exactly in them. Although they are taken charge of, we still believe in taking education primarily to rural areas, especially to the girls who are brutally marginalised. Therefore, our first concentration is rural areas and second is the slums around the cities.

BRR: Women's social and economic empowerment is a big challenge in Pakistan. It is also a hurdle in women entrepreneurship taking root in the country especially when it comes to access to finance, markets, networking. What is Bunyad doing to empower women financially as well as socially? Could you share some stats on how many women you have empowered?

SA: The biggest problem in Pakistan is that women's work is not recognised, because we have not changed the definition of working women since the last two decades. Therefore, it is said that only 23 percent of our women are working. But in reality, larger number of women is working. For example, in the farms or at homes and many, other places. However, their work is not recognised due to the definition of a working woman. Today, this definition is outdated. When you compare it to Bangladesh, 36 percent of women are working versus 23 percent in Pakistan. The definition has not been seriously looked into by our statistics department.

I feel that unless women are given economic recognition, their status cannot improve and that is what most of our lobbying is for – to improve the definition of working women.

Also, we are trying to give small loans to women to take on their businesses, so they can earn independently. We have provided loans and literacy to lacs of women. There is a new concept by the State Bank of Pakistan of financial literacy. We have also taught women how to benefit from financial literacy. This entails learning how to make your household budget. Once you do that, you can make the budget of your business and all it is much easier. So we have done a sizable number which runs into lacs. However, for Punjab's population of about nine crores, a few lacs will not make any impact. Therefore, we are persisting daily in our struggle for rural women.

BRR: Another key issue that women face is reproductive rights, which also hinder their economic empowerment. However, people especially at the bottom of the pyramid, don't even know about such rights. There is a social stigma attached to concepts like birth control, birth spacing, and decisions on when to have children. How can this be dealt with? What role can NGOs like Bunyad play in this regard?

SA: It is not that. A woman, (a poor woman) has no rights. Even a poor man has no rights! How can there be reproductive rights when there is no service delivery in rural areas. What is poverty? When you depend on others. Once you make a woman literate, you show her how to depend on herself. Mostly in the urban areas there are some rights and access to reproductive health supportive institutions, but in rural areas there are none.

I am sure that is the biggest problem because now parents understand that more children translate to more mouths to feed. But the service delivery is so weak that it is unreachable. So, the rich enjoy all sorts of rights and the poor are not only unaware of them, they also don't have access. What we do in Bunyad is to link our rural communities with the district level family planning department and that is how we bring them together. Women want to have less children but unfortunately, the mechanism of delivery of rights is only a vague intellectual discourse.

BRR: Pakistan has the highest numbers of out-of-school-children. How do you explain this predicament? Who is to blame – the government, private sector, or the education system? What is your role in child education?

SA: We have made about 10 lacs people literate and similarly we have put the same amount back into the learning process in the public schools. But yet, the number is so huge. For example, 40 percent are illiterate. Pakistan alone has 70 million or 7 crore illiterate population and mostly are youth. Slowly the parents are sending their children to schools, but the age of group, who are not going, is between 10 to 16 years. And when they become young parents, they face a lot of problems. That is what we are looking into. Bunyad has started and has developed a new form of accelerated learning known as non-formal education. Non-formal education is imperative for children who drop out and then enter back into learning. The need is there, but the finances are missing because urban centres mostly take up the money from the school budgets.

BRR: Bunyad is also offering microfinance solutions. Could you elaborate on what kind of interventions and instruments are you working with, and what have been the results in terms of NPLs, recovery, etc.?

SA: Unfortunately, we have not been very successful in this area, though women are very eager to get loans. This is primarily because the condition of the women is so abjectly poor that it is sometimes very difficult to recover money from most of them. We face the morality dilemma: how to extract money from those who cannot even feed their children. But we are making inputs; mostly we are giving women confidence, to take on life with learning and with micro enterprise.

BRR: What constraints do you face as an NGO in empowering women?

SA: I think the biggest is the funds. The other issue is that training facilities in rural areas both for men and women are abysmal. We do not give training so people can improve and increase their income. It is all in the urban centre, rural areas have it in name only. Bunyad is lobbying the lined departments to bridge the gap between the need of the communities and the training facilities of the government department. Still a lot needs to be done.

BRR: What are the key challenges NGOs face in Pakistan especially after the changes in the regulatory environment?

SA: Though I agree the government must look into the role of the NGOs, they must on the other hand, understand their own failure. If there was a strong local government, the NGOs' role would be less impactful. Secondly, if the government was strong enough and was looking out for the needs of the people, NGOs' role would be less significant. They only wake up during the voting season and then they slumber again for ears. NGOs are sorely needed as there is always a gap in what the population needs and what the government delivers.

BRR: With the ongoing health crisis from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, how vulnerable in your view is the segment of the population you are catering to. Is the rural economy more or less at risk than those in urban areas?

SA: I think it is a very acute situation because most of our people who are adult and serving are mostly day workers. The big companies like those by the Manshas have thrown out 900 workers only in one factory. I think Gul Ahmed has thrown out 400 workers. That is only the tip of the iceberg. Daily workers like female maids have also been made to leave. However, I feel that in rural areas it is not as bad, because of the wheat harvesting season; plus, there is fresher and people are not locked in.

Nonetheless, day labourers are suffering, be it men or women. And remember that we have a very big problem of drug addicts. Their families are living below the poverty line, because they don't earn.

BRR: What kind of change the pandemic has this brought to your regular activities? NGOs can play a big role in creating awareness about the virus and the preventive measures. What role is Bunyad playing in the fight against Covid-19?

SA: Basically, there are three measures. First, we are taking some emergency measures. We are trying to give rations in areas we are working. We are distributing them as fast as we can for about 3 weeks to a month, so that the family is able to stay indoors if they are not allowed to go out and if they can't eat. We give them basic dry rations.

Secondly, we educate them into wearing masks, social distancing, against spitting and telling them to cover their nose and mouth a bent elbow or a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Third, we actively pursuing our awareness campaign for hand washing.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020