Adolescent girls in Pakistan need more than just vocational skills

I thought I had seen it all in my decade-long work on gender equity in Pakistan. Then I was asked to be the lead communications consultant in the USAID Pathways to Success program for the KP province. It is only now, that I really feel like I have seen it all. I have a cache of young adolescent women telling compelling stories on audiotape, pictures of them in action and transcripts of their interviews. It is, however, vivid memories of their strength and spirit that remain with me. These women I met, are the unsung heroes of this country in their fight against traditionalism, patriarchy and in some instances deeply ingrained violence against women. In such an environment, their ability to learn and make their vocational skills marketable is nothing short of miraculous.

I met about 14 young women who were taught vocational skills by trainers under the USAID program. The program was led by the DC-based implementing partner, World Learning that architected the training to be reflective of local challenges and international best practices. These young women were selected randomly to record their journey. Without any privilege or access, they somehow managed to have the same progressive ethos of a young woman from any city of Pakistan who have attended elite private school and has been taught global content.

How did these young women, marred by domesticity, manage to transcend geographic isolation, cultural hegemony, and misogynist values? How did they reject the victimization that accompanies poverty? The design of the program certainly had its architectural genius but over and over again, these young women said to me in interviews that it was the selection of mentors that made all the difference in changing their fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

By design, the program focused on the psychological aspects of these young women’s empowerment just as much as it focused on the skills transfer aspect. In addition to learning about dressmaking, photography, cosmetics, etc., the young mentees also learned life skills and the importance of agency. Many interviewees told me they had never seen any woman as empowered as the mentors who stood before them and taught the basics of learning and living, fighting and dreaming. They said meeting powerful women mentors transformed their mindset to buying into a possibility that they too could transform, incrementally or all at once.

Under the USAID priority, since October 2015, 37,000 girls in KP province (including FATA) and Sindh have been taught vocational skills. In my work with documenting the success of the program, I had to also consider to what extent the development objectives were met. The goals were to increase young women’s household income, empower their mobility and raise their social status. Within these priorities, 158 schools girl’s schools have also been rehabilitated. This is an ambitious program where USD 70 million has been allocated to benefit 200,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 in Pakistan.

The data shows that teenage girls from impoverished families, belonging to a minority group, living a village in Sindh or KP, will live their whole lives without even realizing their fundamental rights. 15.7 percent of all adolescent girls in Pakistan are married off before the legal age[1]. This means that these young child brides have been deliberately harmed and their mental health and body integrity have been compromised. A development emergency as declared by the USAID.

Young women from disadvantaged households lack the familial structures that help promote the development of healthy self-esteem and appropriate self-expression. The goal for USAID was to help them escape this confinement and learn tools that cannot be unlearned. USAID’s Pathway to Success Project was designed and implemented to train 2,532 girls, who face the risk of life-long exploitation due to marginalization.

The project spanned for two years and sought out girls from the remotest communities and taught them rights-based information, communication skills to augment their professional aptitude, inputs for vocational proficiency, access to internships and job placement, entrepreneurship training and financing for micro-enterprises. It was an end-to-end program that aimed to leave young women standing on their feet.

My most memorable interview was with Saadia Ibrahim. She came from a violent and abusive family and suffered psychological harm. She said: “I loved the fact that the teachers were very loving. I used to be so scared of human interaction. I used to feel very scared of beautiful people. When they hugged me, I started loving myself. I started feeling worthy.” As a result of a safe and enabling environment, the learning just followed naturally.

A young woman from a marginalized Hindu family said the USAID vocational training was life-altering. “I used to be unproductive and now I am so proud that I can support my family financially. Now that I earn, it has changed how my father thinks about me. He tells my brother to learn from me.” Capacity building of young women on various vocational skills in underserved areas challenged the long-prevailing gender norms.

Suraksha Chawla said that she wanted to keep working because her father didn’t earn much. He is a homeopathic doctor and practices in remote Swat that has previously been taken over by the militant Taliban in 2013. As a result, economic life in Swat has not recovered. She named her beauty saloon after her father when she completed the beautician course with USAID.

She said, “Now I usually pay the Wifi bill and sometimes pay other utility bills too and that makes me feel strong and valued in my family, especially by my father and brothers.”

Under the program, the National Mentor Network was made up of over thirty high-achieving and prominent women leaders from IT, agriculture, energy, law, healthcare, academia, arts, sports, media, and also venture capital firms. These women came forward as volunteers to mentor the young women. Over numerous sessions, these mentors provided girls access to their own successful lives, networks, and insights. The mentors helped young women from remote areas balance work ethics with cultural norms.

When equipped with skills that were highly in demand within the market these girls went through an overhauling role switch in a limited timeframe. They are now better informed on topics such as the legal rights of all citizens, safeguards against child-marriage and domestic violence, state processes for national ID registration, and affordable banking/insurance solutions. This knowledge complemented with skills training has increased their status within the larger community that often shunned them.

Veronica Parvez was one of the trainees who enrolled in the professional photography course. She had a natural talent but the coursework itself took her to exceptional skill levels that were recognized by her teachers. She said, “I hate the idea of being a burden on my family. All young women should work to secure their future and to not be confined to their homes. They should go outside and be part of everything that is out there in the world. I love documenting the world out there with my camera. I also love being paid for it.”

With these transformational learning practices, USAID has been able to change the societal perception of girls in remote communities and marginalized families. Their financial independence has carved them out as role models for local communities.

The wider scope of the project addressed issues that have a major impact on the life quality and personal development of these girls. Domestic violence is a silent norm in these communities.

By increasing adolescent girls’ participation in secondary and tertiary education and introducing them in freelance and formal workforce, they are becoming Pakistan’s agents for change. With newly acquired confidence, motivation and mentoring it is possible to increase the employability of women over generations.

[1] 2012 UNICEF data

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