Aug. 4, 01:00 EDT
A learning experience

Canadian-backed grassroots program in Pakistan puts village girls in school and helps women help themselves

Martin Regg Cohn
GENDER EQUALITY: Three young students in the northern Pakistan village of Sher Qila, where most women are illiterate, are off to classes at the Aga Khan Girls' School.


GIRLS AT WORK: Students still recite the Qur'an at the Aga Khan Girls' School, but they also study the intricacies of plant cell division.

SHER QILA, Pakistan THE MURMUR of young students reciting the Qur'an wafts through the hallways of this remote village school. It's a familiar sound in the crumbling classrooms of rural Pakistan, where students often memorize Islam's holy book without learning its lessons.

But in this isolated mountain valley, three days' drive from Islamabad, students at the Aga Khan Girls' School live in a different world.

Instead of mud brick walls and dirt floors, they sit in a spotless science laboratory. And along with their headscarves, they wear lab coats.

Taking time out from biology experiments, they brush up on Qur'anic inscriptions written in chalk on the blackboard. There are no posters of Osama bin Laden here, only charts showing the intricacies of plant cell division.

"We are Muslims and the recitation of the Qur'an is important," announces one teenage girl brightly. "But I must also learn science because I want to understand chemistry and become a science teacher."

Islamic extremism has become endemic in Pakistan's education system, just as it was in neighbouring Afghanistan under the Taliban. But a little-known development program in northern Pakistan offers an alternative to the people of both countries.

Backed by Canadian government aid, the Aga Khan Foundation helps villagers overcome formidable obstacles - natural and man-made - by bringing education and electricity to these former backwaters.

Isolated by both geography and conservative local customs, women here have long borne the brunt of rural Pakistan's backwardness. The legacy of purdah - the covering up and confinement of women - has been poverty, disease and illiteracy.

Now, with neighbouring Afghanistan facing similar obstacles - rugged geography, rigid gender traditions and ethnic rivalries - Pakistani aid workers believe they can replicate their success on the other side of the Hindu Kush mountains and help women emerge from the shadows.

"There is the same isolation," says Munir Merali, a Torontonian who moved here in 2000 to take over the Aga Khan Foundation's operations in Pakistan. "There is a lack of human capital, a lack of institutions in mountainous areas that are cut off."

As the girls of Sher Qila gain access to better education - in a country where more than two-thirds of women are illiterate - their ambitions test the tolerance of their male elders.

For students at the Aga Khan Girls' School, basic literacy and higher learning are already paying dividends. But there have been unforeseen consequences.

Female graduates began spurning the marriage proposals of lesser-educated village boys, creating a backlog of bachelors in town.

"The girls were not satisfied," explains principal Sahibnigar Ghulab, herself a graduate of the school. "I think the big problem for the village was that there was no good school for the boys."

Reeling from the rejection of their favourite sons, village elders hastily built a companion school so the boys could keep up with their future wives.

During the two decades that Afghanistan was at war, the Aga Khan Rural Support Project (AKRSP) - a non-denominational subsidiary set up by the spiritual leader of the world's 15 million Ismaili Muslims - tested its development ideas in Pakistan's hinterland.

The Canadian International Development Agency was the first bilateral donor to back the effort in the mid-1980s and the results of that investment are visible today across the region. Canadian signs are posted along winding mountain roads, pointing the way to micro-hydro generators and water channels carved out of the rock faces.

Today, Canada's contribution has moved beyond rudimentary infrastructure projects to gender-equality programs and grassroots organizational work designed to help Pakistani villagers help themselves.

The partnership with the AKRSP - which has won plaudits from the World Bank for effectiveness - is the showpiece of Canada's annual $50 million contribution to Pakistan.

Now, Ottawa is also funnelling cash to Afghanistan, with nearly $14 million earmarked in June for reconstruction and long-term development. And villages in Afghanistan may soon be able to benefit from the lessons learned in Pakistan.

Competing aid groups are falling over themselves to be first in Kabul with their pet projects, but the Aga Khan Foundation is keen to transplant its more integrated approach.

"It's suddenly trendy to be in Afghanistan these days, everyone wants to be in Kabul," Merali says. "But we look at development in the very long term, over a 25-year span.

"When you go into a village and create a women's organization, it's not just for bringing water and building schools. The question is how to manage a project, collect fees for a school and conduct immunization programs for the kids."

A more comprehensive strategy offers a bigger payoff, Merali says.

He cites the example of Canadian-financed micro-hydro generators that did more than provide electricity and hot showers in the middle of northern Pakistan's freezing winters. The effort also forced villagers to organize themselves - collecting their share of the funding and assuming responsibility for long-term maintenance.

"The most important thing about micro-hydro projects is not the technology, it's the sociology," says Miraj Khan, who runs the AKRSP program in the Chitral Valley, in Northwest Frontier Province and has just returned from a planning mission across the border in Afghanistan.

"In four to five years, you can change an entire area."

Changing attitudes takes time, however. In many Pakistani villages, women are still barred from sitting in the same room as the male elders or officials who make the decisions. The most conservative villages even prohibited their women from meeting Aga Khan representatives.

But if they want to be bankrolled by foreign donors such as Canada, the villages have to give women a voice. In some cases, a compromise solution is to establish segregated women's organizations that meet separately to thrash out bargaining positions, then rely on male relatives as go-betweens.

It is an exhausting end-run around purdah and it takes stamina for women to make their case in absentia.

In Hunza - an impoverished feudal kingdom until a quarter-century ago - the Aga Khan Foundation sponsors regular meetings of female activists from surrounding villages. When they gather to compare notes about how to overcome barriers, the room is a riot of colours - accented by bangles and veils, nose studs and earrings.

But the atmosphere is all business as the women try to solve problems.

Shama Chiragh tells the group how she came under fire from religious leaders who insisted a woman's place was in the home - even though, as a widow, she had no means of support in her small village. Ignoring pressure from her relatives to give up, she campaigned door-to-door for support to set up a women's-rights group.

She has forced the men to heed her. But she believes passionately that the real battle was persuading her fellow females to stand up for themselves and take responsibility for their own conditions.

"God has given us rights as women," she tells the meeting of women activists. "We can't blame the men for ignoring us. It is because of the ignorance of women that we suffer from these problems. We women must be wise and strong enough to take charge, or we'll never have a voice in the community."

Religious rituals, ethnic rivalries and cultural traditions die hard here. To overcome the obstacles, aid workers believe conflict resolution and coalition-building are the necessary preconditions - and the building blocks of civil society.

In the conservative Nagar area, Muslim men still hold meetings without women present. But they claim that a conflict resolution committee, set up with funding from the Aga Khan Foundation, has helped keep the peace between the sexes - with better results than those achieved by the local legal system.

In one celebrated dispute, a male relative claimed Shah Bibi's share of her land inheritance when she married outside of the family. The case was bogged down in the courts for 25 years, but it took village elders fewer than 24 hours to decide the matter - in the woman's favour.

"The woman was given all her land," says Mastan Ali, secretary of Sikandarabad village and chairman of the panel. "People come to us because we usually know all the background of the dispute, we listen to both sides and we get to the bottom of things."

The reputation of the village's conflict-resolution committee has spread across the region. Now, outsiders trek to Sikandarabad to plead their cases and avoid the corrupt and inefficient court system.

"If they go through the legal system or complain to government departments, it can take years," Ali says.

Jamal Nisa never had the opportunity to get a decent education or choose a decent husband. Unable to read or write, she was given away at 17 in an arranged marriage to a man 50 years her senior, to be his second wife.

Today, she is the sole breadwinner in the family, supporting not only her aging husband - now nearing 80 - but also his blind first wife, three children of her own and eight stepchildren who are older than her.

But she has spun her way out of destitution, thanks to an AKRSP program that helps women boost their earning power by spinning specialized wool. Known locally as shu, the wool has greater value to buyers because it comes from Chitral Valley sheep that can survive the harsh winters of northern Pakistan and is spun so fine that it can be woven into windproof garments.

Dubbed the Shubinak program, it teaches women quality-control techniques and gives them hands-on experience in marketing their products. Perhaps most important, they learn to bargain hard with the middlemen who previously bought their output for a fraction of its real worth.

"I learned for the first time how to bargain and to understand the value of money," says Nisa proudly, surrounded by co-workers who gather as a group to clean and dye the wool, then sort and spin it.

"Now, I can sell the shu on my own. Before, men dominated everything. I gave the shu to my husband and he would later claim that it fetched a poor price. Today I'm independent. I don't have to rely on my husband."

A sombre woman, she looks older than her 28 years, even with her brightly patterned headscarf and dangling earrings.

Nisa smiles for the first time as she boasts about her earnings from spinning fine wool. She invested her profits in a small shop that now sells soap, sugar and tea to neighbours and has earned her new respect from a family that once took her for granted.

Life is still hard, but she believes the Shubinak program has given her hope - if not for herself, then for her children, so they can one day be educated enough to be choosy about a marriage partner.

"Uneducated people have no value," Nisa says bluntly. "I want to provide a good education for my children. Maybe they'll be luckier than me."