20220911 Shad Begum
Shad Begum Image Credit: Supplied

Shad Begum serves humanity without any fanfare.

Her quiet but very substantial labour shines in her decades of hands-on social work, her farsighted development strategies and execution, and the countless lives that she touched with her values of empathy and inclusivity.

Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit organization Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT), and founder of Women’s Voices Pakistan, an initiative to feature, connect and amplify efforts of females for an equal and just world, Shad belongs to Kalpani Ziarat Talash, a nondescript village in Lower Dir. This Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district is one of the most backward areas of Pakistan.

Working within the system, Shad stepped into the eddies of patriarchy to make space for female empowerment. Instead of indulging in the redundancy of demolishing centuries old male-dominated ethos of her region, Shad, with her decades of commitment and clear focus, has ensured that women’s status of being invisible beings with no rights changes in an affirmative, substantial, life-changing way.

Shad’s ABKT, founded in 1994, “was uprooted during the Taliban extremism in the Swat-Malakand region and due to massive displacement of people in 2009-2010.” It was her sheer perseverance and courage that made ABKT functional again.

In her 2018 TED speech, Shad talked about her pain at her father’s insistence “to stop coming with him to public gatherings. Now, I was a young woman [Shad was sixteen], and my place was in the home. I was very upset. But most of my family members were happy with this decision. It was very difficult for me to sit at home and not be involved.” Shad never gave up her dream of working for women’s rights. Two years later, she became a communication medium between her father’s organization and women in her community and beyond.

Having contested and won the local government elections in 2001 and 2005, Shad for eight years served as a councillor for Lower Dir. She has worked as a consultant for the UN Human Settlements Program’s Building Gender Ladder Project and UNDP’s Women Political Participation Program. Shad is an Ashoka International lifetime fellow, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, and Acumen Regional Fellow. She is also the Ambassador for Pakistan at the Female Waves of Change.

A TED Speaker, Shad’s 2018 first speech—simple, honest, heartfelt, optimistic—in TEDWOMEN at Palm Springs, California, was a resounding success.

Shad is a recipient of many awards, including Prime Minister of Pakistan Certificate of Recognition for Outstanding Contribution to Food Production and Household Food Security; Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Best Social Worker Award; US State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award 2012; Prize for Creativity in Rural Life by Women’s World Summit Foundation Geneva; Acumen Pakistan’s Rising Rhino 2017; ISPR Pride of Pakistan award 2022.

20220911 shad
Image Credit: Supplied

Despite working in a hostile environment, facing all kinds of odds and threats, Shad’s belief in her mission manifests in her humility, lack of cynicism, graciousness, and never-say-die attitude. To me, that makes Shad, mother of two sons, twenty-one and seventeen, not just a national hero and a role model for females but also an inspiration for how personal values become a powerful, inclusive, empathetic guiding light.

For Gulf News, I asked Shad Begum a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: As one of six siblings, one sister, five brothers, what did your father’s social work mean to you?

Shad Begum: My earliest memory of my father’s work is when I was in school. I spent a great deal of time with him in his clinic [Shad’s father was a doctor of pharmacy], and what I noticed was him discussing social issues with people, and how he tried to help them. Using his NGO Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq’s platform, he addressed different issues, especially women’s problems. Watching him, I developed an interest in work that was beneficial to people—listen to their views, interact with them, help them in whatever way possible.

As I grew older, my father engaged me in his work as a volunteer to interact with women who visited his clinic to discuss their issues. I helped him with communication with women, which, to date, is quite tricky in many conservative areas. I used to help him—talking to women, listening to their stories and issues, and discussing them with my father and other members of his NGO. Whatever information I received from him, I conveyed it to the complainants.

Hailing from a region that is entrenched in patriarchal mores, how did you create unintrusive space for your community and social work?

When you’re in your teens, you don’t know in depth the reasons behind certain phenomena. During my talks with women, I discovered that most of their issues were familial matters—a girl wants to study but her brother forces her to stay at home; husband hitting his wife; sisters demanding their share in inheritance. If they didn’t have a brother, their father would give their property to their uncle or uncle’s sons without caring that his daughters were living in misery. Killings in the name of honour were rampant. Swara was a common practice.

My father asked me to join his NGO’s group of women who were all family members of his male staff. For a female-related case, he’d ask me to get full background information. I was acting as a communication bridge.

During that process, I began to question my own identity. That being a woman was the biggest crime in our society. So much happens to you because you’re a woman. I saw that most of the things that happened to women didn’t happen to men. I often wondered what if I was a boy, why I was born a girl. When I talked to my father, he used to explain to me that being a girl was not an issue. Problem was our society that did not consider women real humans. That if someone was cruel to a woman, he was not accountable to anyone.

Going to a police station and court were—still are—huge taboos for women in our area. That was because they were fully dependent on a man. Women were forced to be “weak”; their helplessness pained me deeply inside. I was hurt when I heard local songs with their countless derogatory portrayals of women, one being women possessing low intellect. I fought with my brothers on women’s issues. All that made me think women shouldn’t have existed. This world is of men for men. Women are there but excluded. We are not accepted. And no one cares. A woman can’t go out to talk about her rights.

Most of the families we talked to believed that after marriage, a woman was supposed to live with her husband until her death. That marriage is one institution in which a woman must make all the compromises. If a girl was studying or pursuing a career, once she was betrothed, she was forced to stay home and do nothing. Absence of a woman’s control over her life’s decisions, acceptance of all kinds of violence as her destiny, women conditioned to not change their status, it was all very painful for me. I always wondered what could be done.

Some of my cousins and childhood friends were victims of honour killings [writer’s note: I call them dishonour killings]. A friend’s husband murdered her; court released him on a mental disorder claim. Brother of a cousin, also a class fellow and later colleague, killed his friend in the name of honour. The jirga [tribal court] gave a ruling that his sister, student of class ten, be given in swara to man with physical disabilities. Her studies ended, which after her marriage, she managed to resume with huge difficulty. She became a teacher. Her parents were affluent; they could have given the aggrieved party a piece of land or money, but they gave away their daughter. Because it was a tradition to think of women as commodities. I wept for weeks. My father supported me, but some things were so deeply rooted in society, it was not in his control to oppose or change them.

Working for women made me realize that in our region not a single platform for representation of women existed—a place where women could work, that understood their issues, where they could help other women. My good fortune was my father was very supportive. I had done my matriculation, my father advised me to go to university, but I told him I didn’t want to study. I wanted to work. I asked him to help me, and he did—two years later. Many other local women joined us.

In 1994, we formed the first women organisation, ABKT, in the Malakand division. Seventy-five percent of our staff is female, and our work is mainly woman centric. Twenty-five percent staff is male because we don’t wish to deprive them the way women are excluded on most platforms or make them think we’re hesitant to have them work with us. They’ve supported us on many issues.

We started with small but important things. Agriculture, food security, livestock management, domestic violence. Review anti-women laws that work against them in domestic violence cases, how to stop violence, what a victim can do. We began to engage religious and political leaders of our area. We engaged jirgas on why they gave anti-women verdicts; our talks resulted in them realizing they were wrong. No one, however, was ready to change the established culture as many people were beneficiaries of the system.

Initially, we focused on women’s social and economic development, health, and education.

With time I realized that unless women were made part of decision-making bodies, we couldn’t change their destinies. My focus shifted to political empowerment. To bring in ordinary women—without noted family names or money, or political parties supporting them. It was almost impossible for regular women to enter mainstream politics. 2001 Local Government Ordinance was a great opportunity for us.

Our priority now is to empower women within the local government system—ways of designing and implementing election campaigns, participation in council proceedings, building their political careers, understand the dynamics of Pakistan’s political leadership system. We have courses for all these things.

What are the biggest issues that females of Dir continue to face even in 2022?

Even today sufficient facilities for women are almost non-existent. Many girls still have to travel a long way to another village or town, especially for higher education. Many girls finish education after middle school or matriculation as their families cannot afford to send them to college in another district. Expensive transportation, worsening financial statuses. The main source of income is agriculture; crops aren’t the way they used to be, resulting in decreased earnings. Many of our menfolk work in the Gulf countries.

But things are changing; they want their daughters to be educated and pursue good professions, but unavailability of higher education institutions is the biggest obstacle. Many girls stay home after matriculation, unable to pursue their careers.

In many areas, health facilities for expectant mothers and women reproductive issues are not-existent. No doctors in many areas. Delivery cases, critical or normal, are done mostly at home. Those who can afford to go to private hospitals.

Development programmes mostly ignore women issues. Even today there’re many areas, like in my childhood, where women carry water, for all their household purposes, on their heads. What’s the point of having a political system, funds, and parliamentarians when women in our area still carry water on their heads?

The other issue is lack of employment opportunities. Women of our region are expert handicraft makers, but to access the market they still have to rely on middlemen. There’re very few government-sponsored programmes to teach them advanced skills to make stuff that is marketable in big cities. They make lovely stuff but because of its outdated designs, it is unsellable in bigger markets. Our artisanship is slowly dying.

Political empowerment. The basic problem we face even now is patriarchy. Political parties used to unit to sign agreements against women’s right to vote. Now we’ve made it difficult for them to implement such agreements. We highlight it in media. Because of my work, I’m connected to many national and international orgs and networks, and thus in a position to put pressure on them. Now they don’t make agreements but their investment in women voters is much less than that in their male vote bank.

Many problems are created for female candidates to deter them from contesting elections. Elected female councillors—as a councillor I faced the same thing—are not allowed to sit in council rooms. They’re told to send their husband or brother to sit in their seats. We bring in women after so much hard work, and they’re not allowed to attend council sessions. The “culture” pretext is used. When we go to the Election Commission or local government orgs to ask them to tell councilmen that they’re in violation of law, their responses aren’t very serious—Bibi, you complain all the time; woman councillors are being elected, things will change, but it will take time. We ask how much time is needed to change things. We’re experts at adopting bad things, but in adopting good things we always say it will take time.

What are the short- and long-term steps for rehabilitation and modernization of the infrastructural and other institutional issues in Dir and other backward areas?

The basic thing is planning. Different departments work with no coordination. Even the NGO sector works without coordination. Communities are unaware of the work being done for them. If a school is being made, they don’t know where it’s situated. If a water purification facility is being made, women are unaware of it. Men will make it in a place inaccessible to women. Shoddy planning is the big issue that should be addressed. Communities for whom work is being done should be made part of it.

When we work in Dir, the first thing we do is organize the local community. We sit with them before we design anything. Only then we meet donors to inform them about the needs of people. When we make a facility, we inform the relavant communities that they’ve to take care of them. Sustainability is their responsibility.

During militancy, we had five basic health units and dispensaries for IDPs in Swat. Later, we handed them to district health officers. We involved the local communities in the entire process—that BHUs were for them and their participation was essential.

After floods in Upper Dir, we’ve made many suspension bridges; the area is too big for concrete bridges, also it’s too expensive.

For our work in irrigation and agriculture, we always form groups of local communities. We teach them skills. With their participation we identify problems and solutions before we start working with them. Then we inform them that they’ve to take the work forward.

Planning and coordination are essential in everything. Work should not be in isolation. Lots of work has been done in our region but in isolation. That’s why not much difference is visible. One long term step is coordination between government, private sector, and political parties. A clear division of roles and responsibilities. If we don’t adopt that, on all levels, many of our country’s problems will remain unchanged. Waste of time and resources and no results.

A déjà vu of my experiences of working with IDPs and flood victims—during these floods too, assessment data is inaccurate in certain places. Nepotism rules. Some areas have received help twice while many areas have received nothing so far.

As a calamity-prone country, our disaster management is disastrous. Whenever there’s a flood, it sweeps away everything. Why’re we not prepared? We must ask the authorities why their disaster management strategy is so ineffective. We understand that our issues are huge and resources limited, but we can still be better prepared.

We must improve our connectivity with the world. Globally, we need to reemphasize that Pakistan is a victim not a contributor to climate change. It is the moral responsibility of the countries responsible for global emissions to support us.

How have monsoon rains affected Dir and Malakand districts?

Rains have done immense damage. In Upper and Lower Dir and Malakand, some villages are badly affected. Our biggest issue is the heavy rainfall. People’s houses, old ones and those made of rock and mud, collapsed. Heavy rainfalls have destroyed crops and damaged roads. Livestock is affected. Businesses are affected. Markets, schools, hospitals are closed because of inaccessibility created by damaged roads and bridges.

The most dangerous thing is rain-created food insecurity in our region. People sell and save their harvests to have enough food for a year. Now when jobless, with businesses shut, crops damaged, how will they eat?

ABKT’s priority is to start work on food security. We’ve launched an appeal nationally and internationally that the funds we’re collecting will be for our work with farmers for livestock management and agriculture. If people start planting their crops, in the next six months, at least they’ll have enough food for themselves.

We’re collecting donations, in kind and cash. Transportation of donated goods to Dir and Malakand is our responsibility. The important thing ABKT is doing is connecting people. Because of its remoteness, our area is always ignored, disconnected. My priority is to connect. Be it my organization or our government, whether our resources are big or small, planning, coordination and effective utilization of resources should always be our top priority.