2018 APF Fellow: Saira Shakeel

 As we reach the halfway point of this trip, I am taking the time to reflect on my experience in Pakistan thus far. During our first few days in Islamabad, we had the opportunity to meet with many individuals who work with RSPN, the Rural Support Programme Network, and NRSP, the National Rural Support Programme. NRSP is one of eleven different programs that are supported by RSPN. Their goal is to promote community-driven development by providing the awareness and resources necessary to fulfill the basic needs of communities throughout Pakistan.

NRSP has a dynamic strategy which ensures that services reach the people directly in need of them. This three-tiered approach begins by organizing people from the household level into COs or Community Organizations. It is believed that the local people can best understand local problems. Therefore, the COs are the ones to identify and acknowledge the various issues that their communities face. The next level is the VO or Village Organization, which is made up of multiple Community Organizations. The VOs are then clustered into a larger LSO or Local Support Organization. The LSOs are part of Union Councils which work closely with NRSP to ensure that the necessary training and resources are provided to the VOs and COs. It was inspiring to hear about all of the positive progress that this program has made over the years, and I believe that it is largely due to the organized structure they have implemented. I was surprised but pleased to learn that each tier is largely made up of female members. This overall approach allows for more autonomy within communities and has proved to be very successful for the organization.

My first field visit was in the Rahim Yar Khan district. Samar and I decided to focus on a women’s health project, specifically the DAFPAK initiative. Delivering Accelerated Family Planning in Pakistan, or DAFPAK, is a four-year project that aims to provide reproductive health services to communities in need. It specifically trains Village Health Committees to provide various contraceptive methods to rural areas and encourages proper birth spacing. Newly married couples are educated about family planning and other services. We decided to conduct a case study to assess the current services that are in place and to understand what other needs these woman have. The concept of family planning is taboo in Pakistan, so I was initially concerned with how successful we would be interviewing women about their personal health. However, after the first interview I realized that this was just another misconception that I had, and that these women are actually very interested in these services and are active users of various methods. I learned that many of these women were having children almost every year, which had an effect on their health as well as that of their children due to lack of proper nutrition and inability to fulfill all of the basic needs for the family. They are now encouraged to have a 3 year gap between their children and all of the women I spoke to are actively trying to do so.

“Business in Box” is another venture of DAFPAK which seeks to support women by encouraging entrepreneurship. Select women are given a bag full of items valued at about 3,000 ($30) rupees. The bag contains toiletries, cosmetics, contraceptives and other household items and the woman sell these door to door in their villages. One woman I spoke to was first given a bag three years ago. With the profits that she earned, she has now opened up a small shop right inside her home that is valued at more than 80,000 ($800) rupees. She has expanded it to include snacks and handmade fans and quilts and plans to grow her business even further. She shared that she is very proud of her work because it has helped her provide better for her family. Specifically, she mentioned her children did not have proper transportation to their school 6 kilometers away, but she has now been able to purchase bikes for all of them. I am very inspired by her drive and motivation to keep moving forward and I know that “Business in Box” will continue to support many more women just like her.

We were also invited to attend the RSPs Annual Strategy Retreat which was held at the Pearl Continental in Bhurban. The views were simply breathtaking and it was amazing to see the beauty of Pakistan from that altitude. We listened to a few panels that were comprised of various community members from the different districts that RSPN serves. I was particularly inspired by the story of a young girl who is promoting education in her community. Her elder sister was not able to continue school after the 5th grade and this inspired her to raise awareness about the importance of education. She has successfully helped enroll 4 other girls in school, is now teaching her sister, and aspires to continue until all of the girls in her village have the same opportunity. Access to education, specifically secondary school education, is a huge barrier in many communities. During my field work in Rahim Yar Khan, I learned that most communities have local primary schools but there is a shortage of secondary schools. As a result, many students have to travel many kilometers to neighboring communities to continue their education. Unfortunately, girls are often discouraged from doing so, and are unable to continue past the 5th grade.

I have visited Pakistan a few times before, but this time it’s different. I feel that I have been exposed to many new things that I wasn’t aware of, and this has helped clear some of the misconceptions that I previously had. During my past visits, I would always notice the various socioeconomic issues that are prevalent throughout many cities in Pakistan. I often felt helpless, witnessing poverty first-hand, and assumed that there wasn’t anything being done to fix these problems. However, after learning about all of the different sectors that NRSP is involved with, I have found a sense of relief knowing that a lot is actually being done to support these communities. I especially admire the fact that this program directly involves community members and helps them to realize their potential. The potential is there, it always was, but it just needs to be recognized. NRSP strives to do just that, and provides the necessary tools needed to promote positive change within these communities. I’ve definitely realized that no matter how big their problems are, their hearts are even bigger. The people here have not let their circumstances get the best of them. I am so inspired by the fact that despite all of the challenges that people here face, they still have the hope and desire to help themselves and their communities do better. This hope has truly inspired me to learn about more of these stories and I look forward to the rest of my trip here in Pakistan.

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Post by APF Fellow, Saira Shakeel

South and Southeast Asian Studies graduate from the University of California, Berkeley

Placement: Delivering Accelerated Family Planning in Pakistan (DAFPAK)

Saira was born and raised in California, but has a strong connection to her roots in Pakistan. It has been one of her favorite places to visit but she has noticed, first-hand, some of the socioeconomic issues that are prevalent in communities there. She hopes that with a higher level of education and experience, she can give back to such communities to make a positive and meaningful impact.