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Women of Karachi

By Kausar Khan, Ayesha Aziz and Sheila Ali - posted Tuesday, 21 July 2009


Karachi is the only mega city in Pakistan with a population of nearly 12 million. More than 50 per cent of Karachi’s population lives in katchi abadis, a local term for squatter settlements. Included in this category are the old villages in the land area of the city. Some of these villages are on the coastal belt (outskirts of Karachi) and some are found within the metropolitan city engulfed by the squatter settlements that emerged after 1947, when Pakistan was created, and which saw a large influx of migration into the city. These migrants were from up-country, especially from the province with a majority of Pakhtun population, during the late ’50s when industrial development was occurring in Pakistan.

Today, Pakhtoons constitute a large portion of Karachi’s population, and the city often witnesses conflict between them and members of MQM, a political party that mostly consists of members who were migrants from India after the creation of Pakistan. Some major riots in Karachi have been the result of clashes between these two groups. The indigenous populations of Karachi are the Sindhis, Baluch, Katchi and Gujarati speaking people. Thus the land mass of what is now Karachi is inhabited by sub-groups with varying ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

This paper examines a community-based initiative on women’s empowerment, with women in two squatter settlements of Karachi. One group consisted of women migrants, and the other group were from an indigenous community. Both groups were Muslims.

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Interactive sessions were conducted with seven women’s groups, five at one site (59 women) and two at the other (35 women). A total of 94 women were thus facilitated to explore their understanding of empowerment; identify what facilitates and impedes their empowerment; and to share their strategies for defying or resisting the impeding factors.

The process was spread over a range of 15 (10 Hrs) days to 30 days (80 Hrs).This process resulted in the formation of two women’s organisations which were to pursue the priorities for action identified by the women involved in the process.

Empowerment was interpreted as “an increased capacity to make autonomous decisions that transform unfavourable power relations … It is an increased ability to question, challenge and eventually transform unfavorable gendered power relations, often legitimised in the name of ‘culture’”.

The research framework identified four levels for empowerment - starting from individual empowerment to collective action, getting organised and institutionalisation of the goals and objectives of the women’s efforts. Thus, the trajectory of action/s taken by the two groups was monitored, and any differences between the two groups could be noted.

Women’s understanding of their empowerment at the two sites was not substantially different, but a difference in their readiness to undertake collective action became evident as the two groups of women moved through the different stages of the research processes that led to the formation of women’s organisations at both the sites.

Women of the indigenous population appeared more enthusiastic to take collective action that would benefit women of their area, whereas women of the migrant groups did show an intention for collective action but appeared to imbibe less energy and enthusiasm for action.

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The reason for the difference became apparent when Cognitive Behaviour Group Therapy (CBGT) was introduced in both the groups. The intended purpose was to use a tested psychological approach to women’s empowerment that is predicated on women exploring their own behaviour and perceived causes of that behaviour. This process of self-awareness is expected to lead to changes in behaviour as perception of causes changes. The action research process also assisted the women to identify priority areas for action, and they underwent advocacy training to present their priorities to the “decision makers” in their communities at a public meeting.

After the two public meetings, the WEMC research team continued to meet with the two groups to track actions for change at the community level. As action seemed to be slow in coming, group therapy sessions were introduced. This process revealed a difference in the women’s commitment to their communities.

The indigenous women were born, raised and married within their community. On the other hand, women of the migrant communities saw their area of residence as a strange place to which they arrived after their marriage, and those who grew up in the area anticipated marriages outside this community (marriages often being arranged in the villages of their parents); this resulted in a new generation of women who lacked any emotional investment or sense of belonging. This created a major difference in the desire and action for change in the overall area.

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About the Authors

Kausar S. Khan, MA is Associate Professor, Community Health Services at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, Pakistan. She has educational background in humanities and social sciencesand has worked as an educator for over 20 years.

Ayesha Aziz is a Public Health Professional working in the health and development context of Pakistan.

Sheila Ali is a mental health professional, trained as a social worker, and working as psychotherapist and development practitioner in Pakistan.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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