Radical feminists call her a conformist and extreme religious-political groups think she promotes western agendas. But Maryam Bibi (born 1950) deals with this dilemma just as she has handled all other challenges in her remarkable life–with courage, humor, and optimism. The founder of Khwendo Kor, an NGO that works for women's development through education, healthcare, and microcredit in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, has a genius for turning foes into friends with her inclusive and evolutionary approach.
Born in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), Maryam Bibi was married young to her cousin, a schizophrenic unable to work. It took Maryam 17 years of negotiation and consultation to get permission to work outside the home. In 1987, she joined an NGO, the All Pakistan Women's Association. Two years later, she embarked on a four-year stint with a German agency for a technical support project. Six years after she began working, Bibi started her own NGO, Khwendo Kor (which means in Pushto, sister's home), for women and children's development through education, healthcare, and microcredit. Khwendo Kor has expanded from a staff of four to 129, with four regional offices in some of Pakistan's remotest areas, difficult to access and hostile to the concept of female emancipation and empowerment. Yet, today there are 7000 girls studying in villages across the region. For Maryam, "collaboration" and "consensus" are key words to her inclusive approach. In the tribal areas, Khwendo Kor formed a committee of the main stakeholders (civil society, government, religious leaders) to advise and support it in all important matters, including the selection of villages, teachers, and developmental schemes. There is now a demand for its services even in villages that were once hostile. At the district level, Maryam collaborates with local government departments to help people gain better access to public services, actively seeking the involvement of the establishment by handing over the girls' schools it sets up to the government; it also mobilizes communities to participate in government health campaigns. Khwendo Kor is the only women's NGO in the arch-conservative north-west frontier province that has a decentralized management structure with independent regional offices run by predominantly local female staff.