One village at a time

Sarfaraz Memon meets a woman who became a powerful force for transformation in her rural community in Sindh

One village at a time
Back in 2007 the situation in some parts of Sukkur district was similar to that in various districts of upper Sindh: due to tribal feuds amongst different communities, many areas were turned into no-go zones, where people neither could work on their agricultural lands or business outlets and nor could the children be sent to schools. People lived in fear of armed clashes between rival groups, which had become so rampant that the peace-loving people had started moving out of their native places to lead conflict-free lives. Similar was the situation in Kandhra, Roshanabad and other adjoining areas, some fifteen kilometers from Sukkur, where the Shaikh and Janwri communities were at war and many people from the either community were killed. This was not all: the women and even girls in their preteens were not allowed to go out and in case of emergency they were allowed to go out only after wearing the shuttlecock-style burqa. Born and brought up in such suffocating environment, Zubaida Janwri, a widow and mother of five children, decided to disregard these old traditions and change the lives of hundreds of women. But first she had to organize them.

“At first I met strong resistance from my relatives and other people, especially the close relatives of late husband, but going out and creating awareness amongst the people in the hope of giving them a better future was a matter of life and death for me,” Zubaida says. “I received a warm welcome from the women, but most of the men including local notables (wadera) Ali Nawaz Janwri and Gul Hassan Janwri did not allow me to meet their women, as they feared that I might ruin their lives. They used to tell the women that I had lost my senses after becoming widow and therefore they were not to let me in. They threatened me of dire consequences, but I was committed to my resolve and therefore did not pay much attention.”

Zubaida continues: “Actually after my husband’s death ten years ago, as a woman I was seeing no future for my children and therefore, defying all the odds, I went out and slowly and gradually succeeded in convincing many women and men of my village.”

Zubaida Janwri, in the earlier stages of her life's work

It was an uphill task, and it brought her into a direct clash with traditional and patriarchal values. “I requested them to give up that bloody game and stop killing women over the pretext of karo-kari. My efforts bore fruit and with the passage of time, a large number of women joined hands with me and thus started working at home to earn some extra bucks,” she recalls.

“When the people of the area, especially men, saw for themselves the positive results of my efforts, they started respecting me and allowed their women to work with me to earn a respectable living. With the grace of Allah Almighty I had become a strong lady!” she says. It was a far cry from the time when she had been a vulnerable “Bechari Bewah” (helpless widow).

And it was at this time that a team from the Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO) visited the village and offered Zubaida and other women the opportunity to work with them to become self sufficient. She called a meeting of women and men of the area and discussed the proposals put forward by the SRSO team. When the participants gave green light, they started to work with SRSO.

“One day I went to the office of the Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO) in Sukkur and volunteered my services as a community worker,” she recalls. “The SRSO people welcomed me and trained me and from that day on, I have never looked back.”

After being trained as a community worker, she managed to convince around two dozen women of the village – a process which involved convincing the men to let the women go out.
Zubaida is now in charge of the affairs of around 14 nearby villages

“Slowly and steadily I succeeded and today it is not only women, but men from more than 14 villages who are standing with me,” she says proudly. Zubaida is now the President of the Local Support Organisation and is in charge of the affairs of around 14 nearby villages.

Speaking about her past, she says that like other girls of the area, she was married to a man twenty years older than her, at the age of 12. “My husband was no different from other men of the village and thus I was not allowed to go out, and I was confined to the four walls of my house,” she says. Zubaida was initially sent to the village’s primary school but was taken out after she completed class two, as girls were not allowed to seek education beyond this.

In 2015, the SRSO offered interest-free loans of Rs 4.5 million to 250 women of different villages, all of which have been repaid. In the field of maternal healthcare, more than 100 normal deliveries and 25 caesarean sections have been performed free-of-charge. The women and their husbands are getting insurance cover of Rs 15,000 each.

Sitting on a patchwork rilli quilt at her two-room house, provided under the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), Zubaida wears a printed lawn shalwar qameez and a gold necklace around her neck – and gold bangles in her wrists. With a smile, she speaks of the inner joy that she felt after overcoming extreme poverty. She believes she developed the confidence to take on any bureaucrat or politician, and this eventually allowed her to develop into a real leader of her community.

“Earlier, the politicians used to get our votes through our Waderas and thus only the local Wadera used to get all the benefits, but now the womenfolk will only vote for those who will work for their welfare!” she says. “Our vote is not for sale,” she continues. “The women of this area have changed a lot and therefore no one can cheat us through hollow slogans.”

Community Health Worker (CHW) Farzana Shaikh, who has come to visit Zubaida’s house, says that around 150 CHWs are looking after around 150,000 women and children of the area. Lauding the role played by Zubaida Janwri, she points out that due to the awareness campaign run by her, cases of karo-kari have reduced by 90% and people have stopped marrying off minor girls.

SRSO District Manager Nasreen Noonari says, “This year we have provided poultry to these women, which includes four hens and a rooster”. Due to the untiring efforts of Zubaida Janwri and other women like her, people are now sending their girls to the village’s primary school, which earlier was forbidden to them. Chief Executive Officer SRSO Dittal Kalhoro highly appreciates the role of Zubaida in changing the mindset of the women and even more, the men.

“Previously, they thought of themselves the lords of the household,” Noonari says. “Women like Zubaida slowly and gradually can change the entire society through their untiring efforts. It may be true that the financial resources for all this have been provided by the SRSO, but all these resources would have gone waste without the active participation and leadership of women like Zubaida.”

Sarfaraz Memon is a freelance journalist. He may be reached at