By Hira Nafees Shah
With six children and limited resources, Parveen Emanuel had led a tough life. In her childhood, she had wanted to study, but her parents had refused, saying that they did not want their daughter to get a job.
Then marriage brought an avalanche of responsibilities. Now in her fifties and a grandmother, Emanuel finally received another shot at fulfilling her desire to get an education. She and 56 other unprivileged women–some of them domestic workers—took part in a unique adult education project earlier this year called “Women Education and Reforms,” funded by a small grant from the Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network.
Led by interfaith community activist and Emerging Leaders of Pakistan alumnus Shahid Rehmat, the six month project imparted basic literacy skills to women living in conflict-hit areas of Lahore and Faisalabad. In recent years, conflict between different faith communities in Punjab has created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, according to Rehmat.
“My biggest motive in carrying out this project was to remove the negative feelings of Christian underprivileged women towards the Muslim community,” Rehmat said.
Hailing from the Christian community, Rehmat’s personal experience with discrimination led him to become a community activist and establish the non-profit organization “Interfaith Youth in Action.”
The alumnus further honed his community service skills during his U.S. exchange program, where he had the opportunity to learn from other like-minded U.S. activists. With new strategies in hand, Rehmat decided to initiate adult education to give back to his local community.
During the project, two to three hour long classes were held five days a week in which local teachers taught Urdu, English and Mathematics at the beginner level. The volunteers also went door to door to motivate the women to take part in the project and kept the hours flexible, to ensure that as many domestic workers as possible could participate.
Aster Bernard, a teacher who runs a private Christian school, says teaching the adults was quite intimidating in the beginning, since most of the women were older than her. But she ultimately found the experience very satisfying.
Basheera Ilyas, a mother of four and one of the participants says she now knows how to sign her name, do basic arithmetic and check her children’s school books, courtesy of the classes she attended. She is also very proud of the fact that she learned how to read the Bible and has taught her husband.
The quality of life of the students has improved in other ways as well. One of the participants Allah Rakhi is responsible for managing her neighborhood’s informal money saving method called the “committee.” Now that she can write, do basic arithmetic and count money properly, the chances of fraud have been reduced.
“Now no one can pull a fast one on me since I can add money very well, while before I did not know if anyone was giving me the correct amount, because I was unaware of how to put down numbers on a paper,” Rakhi said.
For domestic worker Muqaddas Majeed, the biggest benefit of the program was the chance to improve her Urdu language skills.
“Before I used to talk to my kids in Punjabi, but now I communicate with them in Urdu,” Majeed said. She now hopes she also get an opportunity to learn advanced English.
At the closing ceremony, officials from Akhuwat also gave a presentation to the participants, on how they can apply for small loans to start their own businesses and micro-entrepreneurship projects.
“The response at the ceremony was very good as the participants were very receptive and asked a number of questions,” said Muhammad Ejaz.“We made it clear to them that anyone can get a loan from us whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim.”
The project not only benefited the domestic workers; Rehmat says he learned many useful skills as the project manager. The whole process gave him a sense of pride and self-confidence, to take on bigger ventures in the future, the activist says.
“I feel that it’s an achievement that I was able to carry out my project successfully without any significant infrastructure,” said Rehmat.“I am happy that I have learned so much for free and this experience will stay with me.”