Video - Journey of Pakistani Women, Canadian Cooperation in Pakistan


Women have been at the forefront of key movements around the world. The Pakistani freedom struggle also saw women stand side by side with men to demand independence. But the 1980s brought some of the darkest years for women in Pakistan. What started as defiance against discrimination and oppression turned into a countrywide movement. Since then for over three decades, Pakistani people have continued the struggle to promote women’s rights in Pakistan.

Journey of Pakistani Women
Canadian Cooperation in Pakistan

In 1980 there was a rush of anti-women, anti-minorities legislation that was not just oppressive but was very discriminatory and it really disadvantaged Muslim women and non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan. Women had been stopped from participating in athletic events. There was a questionnaire circulating by the government whether women could drive woman could work.

There are pictures that everyone has seen of women burning their chadar and dupattas as a reaction to the hudood ordinance and other laws which basically were saying in illegal policy frame work that women are second class citizens.

This was an era where you couldn’t really turn your face away. You couldn’t say that this is happening but it doesn’t concern me.

The movement already existed. It may have not been as well connected, understood and recognized but the movement was always there.

There were other movements but primarily it was the woman action forum for educated women who came to rescue their fellow women in other parts of rural and urban and peril urban parts of Pakistan who were the direct victims of these anti women laws.

That’s how I think this whole situation of a dark period in Pakistan’s history had a silver lining. More oppression that we saw, stronger the resolved to fight it became. One of the things that also has a strategy the women’s right movement I think did very right was to forge alliances with other movements. Women rights cannot be promoted in isolation we have to have support of the movement of democracy, trade unions and that’s what we did. The women’s movement was the mother for the movement for democracy in Pakistan.

Late 80s and early 90s most of the human rights organizations were formed and established like Aurat foundation, South Asia partnership Pakistan, HRCP and many others.

The Canadians came forward and supported those institutions, individuals and organizations which were taking that pro people pro women progressive agenda forward.

Some of the biggest organizations that came into being were the ones who were working for development in rural areas. SAP-pk for instance, is a direct creation or facilitated by the Canadian support. Similarly, SPO was also created but the Canadian support. These organizations had big grass root our reach.

CIDA in case of South Asia partnership, SPO, HSCP, Shirkat Gah, Aurat foundation and numerous other organizations where CIDA provided them not only program support but institutional support.

Not just the organizations the Canadians also invested in consolidating networks of these civil society organizations and institutions from the grassroots to the very top.

Canada has a model of change that works on three different levels, from grassroots to institutional and then to policy level impact on the ground as well as at the individual level and we have always tried to work at having impact on those three levels. I believe a cadre of gender equality activists and organizations taking actions on gender equality exists in Pakistan, partly through Canadian support in the 1990s. We have seen a tremendous change at the level of strengthening of civil society of women’s rights organizations in Pakistan. There has also been a tremendous progress in Pakistan at the legislative level for women’s protection. At some level grassroots is also impacted by those policy and legislative change.

Often our work remains on the top and does not trickle down or starts from the bottom and doesn’t go up but I think real change starts from the bottom that’s just my personal opinion and I think Canada was able to help build that foundation engaging women and girls at district level, engaging those that got elected to build their capacity and that fundamental changes really never disappeared from any of our models. Ours and other organizations that work in the same area.

The local government elections were held in late 90s or early 2000, I remember that CIDA supported Aurat foundation financially and thinking and designing the program so we ran a very successful campaign in this quote of CIDA and that was the citizens’ campaign for women’s representation. This campaign and the local government election was a turning point in Pakistan’s history. Then onwards we see that the policy framework of Pakistan for women and other marginal sections started changing.

As a result of our work for the informal economy the government of Punjab started its policy on domestic worker after our interventions. Now after the project has been over for more than one and a half year, the government of Punjab has moved from policy and in to the law. The punjab government has come up with a policy on home-based workers and that policy is now valid. In agricultural sector, the government of Sindhi for the first time awarded the right to organize the agricultural and fishery workers under Sindhi industrial relation act. So these were some of the policies that we have worked on with the government.

Since the beginning of AKRSP, Canadian government one of the bilateral donors provided the financial support to AKRSP for its social mobilization for women’s development program where AKRSP designed a program with financial support from government of Canada where women’s productivity was increased, their institutional strengthening and their capacity was build and activities were designed which reduced their work load.

First I received training in jewellery making and production, and later also worked as a master trainer. Then I heard about a gems cutting project at Rupani Foundation, I got a 4-month training there. We are the first women in Hunza who have started their own gems cutting and jewellery business. Now we want more trained women to come out of their houses and start their own enterprises.

In the 90s with Aurat foundation they intervened at the district level in an initiative to engage women and children that same initiative was taken forward in the 2000s. Canada played a huge role in creating resource centers for women counselors, that were elected on the local level, which was a huge direct intervention at the policy level and I think it was through this intervention of CIDA that counselors requested that there be centers in which they are given the capacity training, that we have now got elected but what’s our role, What do we do next, how do we serve our community, so I think that was a very forward thinking initiative.

Women can achieve whatever they aim for. I can't tell you how I felt when I found out that I had been selected as a member of provincial assembly. I can't explain those feelings it in words.

And as I was taking the oath, I was praying that god give me the courage to honor this oath. after 4 months of struggle, I was able to make a paved street in my town, and able to distribute sewing machines in the community. I have other dreams too; to become a prime minister. I will fulfil this dream and people will remember me and say "look, that woman who started her journey from her kitchen can also become the prime minister."

Today we have helped over 1.5 million women entrepreneurs across Pakistan through access to micro loans, micro insurance and of course the project that we ran with the Canadians on training women on financial education, training men on better gender practices and creating awareness on gender rights, and also helping women in improving their practices. But this was the first time that a development institution funded by a donor was working with main stream media to actually develop a product that was not only educational but also entertaining, that was the thrust of this strategy.

I remember Canada really stands out in our struggle for women’s rights in Pakistan. We don’t need money to promote a cause, but if we have the resources the pace of change quickens and the outreach becomes bigger.

If you look at the development aid architecture not just now but for the last many decades, sponsors and donors have invested in projects and nobody comes forward to support the institutions. This was a small funding but they were consistent they were steady and money went to the right places.

The Journey Continues…

Shortly after the government assumed office our minister for international development, Marie-Claude Bibeau, launched a review of Canada’s international assistance policy and the name of the new policy is Feminist International Assistance Policy. One of the key findings of the review in our assessment was that, if there is one thing that can achieve progress in reducing poverty and stimulating development in the world, it is gender equality & promoting the empowerment of women.

We are safer and more prosperous when more of the world shares Canadian Values.

When women are educated, there are more jobs for everyone. When mothers can keep their children alive and send them to school, there is hope. The world needs leadership based on serving humanity, not based on how many weapons you have, Canada can take that lead. Let the future generation say, we were the ones who stood up. Let them say, we were the first to live in a world where all girls could learn and lead without fear.

Credits to:

United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

Kashf Foundation

Plan International

Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP)

Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP)

Aurat Foundation

National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW)

Shirkat Gah

South Asian Partnership Pakistan (SAP-PK)

International Labour Organization (ILO)

Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO)

Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP)

International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

With special thanks to:

Hina Jilani

Lawyer, Activist

Rhonda Gossen

Former Head of Aid, Pakistan Program, Government of Canada 2010-2013

H.E Perry Calderwood
Canadian High Commissioner

Malala Yousafzai

Ambareen Ali
Beneficiary, Hunza

Beneficiary, Hunza

Beneficiary, Vehari

Rana Ansar
MPA, Hyderabad