Pakistan: Nasreen Awan

Grassroots worker Nasreen Awan works overtime to give other women the opportunities she has earned for herself through extraordinary grit and perseverance.

— Nasreen Awan

Nasreen Awan (born 1961) got herself an education in her home district of Sangarh, a poverty-stricken part of Pakistan's Sindh province, against the most daunting odds. Then, she determinedly carved out a career for herself as social activist in a region where women were considered the property of their men, and not allowed to step out of their homes without male permission. Today, as head of an NGO and a district political functionary, she is an inspiration for hundreds of women trying to make a better life for themselves in a belligerently patriarchal society.

In the village in Sindh's Sanghar district where Nasreen Awan was born, the nearest road was three kilometers away, the nearest market seven kilometers away, and the only school lacked furniture and a roof. Determined daughter of an unlettered mother, Nasreen studied at the village primary school and then combined long walks with bus journeys to reach the secondary school in the nearest town, from which she matriculated. Nasreen was admitted to a college, but her father fell in with local custom and married the 16-year-old girl to his nephew. Nasreen's husband's family was opposed to her studying further. But, with her husband's support, she managed to graduate while living in Karachi with her elder sister and her brother-in-law. Her next goal was to help others gain access to the opportunities she had made for herself. Her chance came in 1983, when she went to Chichawanti, her husband's family's small hometown in district Sahiwal of Punjab province. Noting the absence of decent schools, she set up a private school, and established skills development and vocational training centers for poor women by selling her own land and soliciting donations from the community. She allied herself with a local NGO, Anjuman Falah-e-Niswan Chichawatni, which worked in literacy, health, and poverty alleviation. Nasreen was elected the NGO's president in 1990. With its support, she established 13 vocational training institutes and an equal number of nonformal schools in villages around Sahiwal. Nasreen set up a scheme to provide educational vocational training to women at their doorstep, which has so far served about 2250 women. Eventually, she set up a free legal aid cell and a shelter home for poor women. Nasreen finally entered politics' fold: in 2001, she was elected member of the Sahiwal district council. It was a fight well won.

Anjuman Falah-e-Niswan Chichawatni