By Hira Nafees Shah
On a hot and humid afternoon in July, about 30 female activists set up a medical camp with a volunteer doctor in a local high school. The women went door-to-door encouraging others to visit the camp, which was free of cost.
Though medical camps like this are relatively common in Pakistani urban centers such as Islamabad and Lahore, for these women from Sukkur it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The medical camp was made possible by a team from Emerge Pakistan – a project established by Ali Channa, a Community College Initiative Program (CCIP) alumnus through an Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) grant from the U.S. Department of State to educate young women about community participation, volunteerism, and the democratic process. AEIF grants sponsor projects in ten key areas, including women’s empowerment. U.S sponsored exchange alumni like Channa are given up to $25,000 to run their projects.
Building a Democratic Student Organization
“When I went on my exchange program and saw the community involvement of women, it inspired me,” said Channa. “If it’s possible in America then why not here.” Channa added that he also “wanted to reduce the gap between parliamentarians and the common man so that they can also become leaders.”
Students from four government colleges in Sindh took part in the training. The group was divided into four sections, each with their own female mentor. Ali’s yearlong project began with curriculum development, translation of course materials into Sindhi, and selection of government colleges. Potential participants were selected through a rigorous screening process. Afterwards, a student governing board was established at each college to select its president and general secretary. Each chapter also chose a speaker, deputy speaker, parliament, and opposition leader to teach the students about democratic norms.
Emerge Pakistan held a total of 12 conferences, covering issues including public speaking, parliamentary procedure, media and messaging, and fund raising.
Democracy Training Opens Doors
Managing a student organization and running a student parliament helped the participants discover skills and talents they never knew they had. Many participants praised the Public Speaking session.
“I did not think that I could speak in front of so many people,” said Bakhtawar Baloch, a participant. “But after attending the conference, my confidence has developed and my knowledge has increased.”
She also declared happily that going forward the attendees of the project have proposed to set up a women wing in a local girls high school in Sukkur, so that they can work on issues related to females in the district.
Keenjhar Soomro, one of the advisers, said that at the outset of the project, the thinking and demeanor of the girls demonstrated the lack of opportunities that they had for personal development, but this changed as the trainings continued.
“I noticed a change in my students that as the sessions progressed, they became more confident,” she said.
Soomro also gave the example of one of her trainees who she had striven to bring out of her shell. Initially she was very quiet, but by the end of Emerge Pakistan she was able to deliver a speech in front of an audience, which the adviser hails as a great achievement.
For Sehar Bilal, Skype conversations with guests from America were the most fruitful learning experiences at the conferences. She also applauded Channa’s choice of educational institutes for the program.
“I really appreciate Ali for not going to the best colleges in Sukkur, and instead selecting public colleges which have never experienced such an opportunity before,” said Bilal.
Another student not only thanked the organizers for their efforts in holding Emerge Pakistan, but also suggested a way forward.
“I want that a similar program should also be held in Larkana and Jacobabad on the lines of the trainings that we received in Sukkur, so that girls in these areas can also be educated,” said Momal Mendhri.
She said that the role playing activities associated with many of the sessions really helped to drive the messages of the program home for her.
Ali Channa and his team showcased their work at the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network’s Islamabad chapter reunion at the end of their project. The participants were not only excited to visit the capital, but met with the Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Williams, were interviewed by media, and received great feedback from participants in the function. “I enjoyed the conference on culture during the project and here at the reunion, we learned how to adjust with people from different cultures,” said Rabia Mirani.
CCIP alum Ali Channa is also ecstatic about the difference he sees in the lives of his students.
“When we started, in the first few conferences, many of the girls could not talk,” said Channa. “But in the last few conferences, I could hardly get a word in!”
He is also thankful to the U.S. Department of State for the AEIF funding that enabled him to realize his goal.
“The AEIF funding was very beneficial because it helped me to put my ideas into action,” he said. “We taught 30 girls, brought social change to the area, promoted volunteerism and involved colleges in the legislative process all through this project.”
As for Emerge Pakistan, Channa believes this is not the end of his initiative, but that it would continue to grow and his participants would inspire other females, which might end up bringing a democratic revolution in Sukkur.
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