When I came across the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) Programme’s Annual Report 2020-2021, entitled ‘Building Sustainable Institutions,’ I quickly scanned its contents and thoroughly read its one of the sections, ‘Social Mobilisation Leading to Women Empowerment.’ There is much here to interest those who study institition-building to empower rural communities.
But it seems appropriate that before commenting on it, I should introduce the program. Presently, some of the Rural Support Programs are implementing it some rural districts of Sindh. Till now it is Sindh’s largest women-led programme. Presently, through the program, 601,552 households have been organised into 29,920 Community Organisations. These community Organisations have their own saving programs which contains an overall cumulative saving of over PKR 89 million. The present figures might be negligible in the present era of big data, or some statisticians handling exponent figures would surely ignore it. But a keen observant sociologist might unpack some links that how the formation of peoples’ own institutions would create new social relationships at the grassroots level. It might help us understand how these institutions have created their backwards and forwards relations that roam around their peoples’ skills and institutions.
After all, even a skeptical sociologist would agree that the present number of rural women’s organisations would dent traditional Sindhi society (which is often introverted and stagnant due to patterns of land ownership and human settlement) in some specific ways
These peoples’ institutions reminded me of Paolo Freire’s education program. In 1963, he served as the president of the National Commission on Popular Culture (NCPC). The committee introduced an educational campaign: it aimed to literate 5 million Brazilian citizens. It must be remembered that at the time, literacy was a requirement for voting. It was obvious that Freire’s campaign would increase electoral participation. Therefore, Brazilian oligarchs and landowners feared that the campaign would cause peasants to form associations and vote for their rights. In short, the Brazilian Right sensed that Freire’s adult literacy initiatives posed a threat to traditional hierarchies. It is true that there is little direct resemblance between the Brazilian NCPC initiative and Sindh’s SUCCESS program, except that both have enabled poor people to organise themselves, and set their priorities. But this, in of itself, is an important parallel with the Brazilian experience of mass empowerment. After all, even a skeptical sociologist would agree that the present number of rural women’s organisations would dent traditional Sindhi society (which is often introverted and stagnant due to patterns of land ownership and human settlement) in some specific ways.
There may be more than one area of impact: most noticeable would be peoples’ institutions striving to take part at major levels of decision making. On the other hand, the leaderships’ close liaison with the government departments would help them with to access to information, and empower them to hold civil servants and politicians accountable. Ultimately, people would demand that information on budgets and on the use of funds should be made available in newspapers and other accessible information sources. Resultantly, people would hold their leaders accountable for outcomes. Such public accountability would help to reduce inefficiency and corruption. Strong networks of women’s organisations would promote the political empowerment of poor people, pressuring the state’s institutions to better perform.
The sustainability of this programme needs a broader political perspective. Therefore, it has become an imperative for the Sindh Government to formulate a comprehensive strategy for rural women’s empowerment, rather than a specific set of interventions
This scribe contacted Mr Fazal Saadi, a senior staff member of the Rural Support Programme Network, regarding societal impact of the SUCCESS interventions. He told that apart from other interventions one immediate and visible was the impact of the CNICs. He shared his field experiences that women having CNICs had a sense of identity. They were eager to vote and know their rights as citizens of their country. However, the CNICs increased their self-confidence and encouraged them to share their opinion on village matters. He added that in Sindh’s eight districts of the SUCCESS programme, 78% (83% male and 72% female) eligible adults have CNICs. However, with support of the program, in poor households of the same districts, 76% (80% male and 71% female) of eligible adults have CNICs. He was of the view that having CNICs has provided a solid legal identity for women. It has enabled them to travel themselves to collect or deposit the cash. It has cut out the unnecessary intervention of intermediaries.
Mr Saadi notes that CNICs number from the SUCCESS districts facilitated by RSPs was 83,956. He concluded that the federal government as well the provincial government were already harnessing the potential of digital ID systems, and would surely transform the lives of rural women in Sindh. It was also expected that a stronger legal identity would influence the local bodies’ elections, and so political parties might include and prioritise the local issues related to rule of law and human rights for women, encouraging the local leadership to come up with area development projects related to waste management, clean drinking water and other initiatives in social services.
Being a development practitioner, I am of the view that the SUCCESS program has created a critical mass in the area of gender politics. The number of women participating in the various organizational levels and forms would surely affect the Sindh Government’s policies. If that critical mass somehow applies new communication technologies/ social media it would make irrelevant the traditional communication channels. It would happen so due to the interactive nature of social media and its inbuilt ‘high network effect’. This would work like a snowball effect. However, it would only happen, when the women’s organizations would notice that ‘forward-moving- options’ (taking part in local bodies and area development projects) have been closed to them. But here, in the case of the Sindh Government, it has endorsed the program, and it has been extended to other districts.
The sustainability of this programme needs a broader political perspective. Therefore, it has become an imperative for the Sindh Government to formulate a comprehensive strategy for rural women’s empowerment, rather than a specific set of interventions. The political will and allocation of resources would determine the framework of women’s empowerment. However, the global literature on women’s empowerment and liberation suggest that it must create the encouraging environment for marginal groups, along with women, initiate a process through which other rural actors act collectively for the solution of their problems. It is visualized that proposed empowerment strategy would play an instrumental part in eradicate of poverty and end exclusion in its broader societal sense. In addition, the relevant literatures reveal women’s empowerment needed vibrant society, sensitive government servants, people-centered political leaders, and systems that assure the delivery at the ground.
However, the government must realise that it has to nurture independent, active women’s organizations.
Therefore, these empowered women and their organisations need recognition and the space in which they can operate and flourish. It is spirit of cooperative development and essence of the SUCCESS program.
Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. Presently, he is associated with Sohail University and Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi