The journey of transformation: Story of Kamla Devi

The transformative power of human agency is enormous. Kamla and her comrades provide the hope and optimism amidst appalling conditions of life for a poor woman in Tharparkar.

By Amir Hussain and Savaila Hunzai

Kamla Devi from Ghartiyara village of Taluka Nagarparkar of Tharparkar is not sure of her age, but she does remember her mother saying, “Kamla was born during the dreadful days of war when East Pakistan was separated.”

Married at the age of 14, Kamla was left to her own devices in this tender age to take care of the

`wretched family of her in laws.  “Our nearest well was at least 2-3 km away from our hut and I used to wake up before dawn and walked out to search for water in neighbouring villages and reservoirs located behind the mountains. I suffered a miscarriage and my first child was a stillborn during a trip for fetching water from mountainside. The load of water with empty stomach caused labour pain on the way. When I returned home, I delivered the stillborn.”

“We got into debt trap during the consecutive droughts in Tharparkar from 2011-2014.  We had to take a loan of 30,000 Rupees from a local money lender for food and treatment of my ailing husband. We had taken small loans from local land owners too to meet our daily needs. The interests on these loans kept mounting exponentially. It was a disgraceful and traumatic experience to the family when the money lenders started to frequent us in front of villagers. Where could I hide myself? We sold our cow and its calf to pay off part of the loans, but could not ward off the debt trap because of the excruciating interest rate”, says Kamla.

While narrating her story of plight Kamla’s beady eyes started raining with tears, “My children were ousted from the primary school. They had started to work for a landowner, but all our wretchedness continued with another year of drought. In despair with hunger and immersed in debt, we decided to migrate to the irrigated areas in search of food and employment.”

“In this period of despair”, Kamla recalls, “three men and a woman came to our village and called a meeting to discuss about our development issues. After a long discussion with the local men, the visitors introduced the Government of Sindh’s Union Council Based Poverty Reduction Programme (UCBPRP)   and Thardeep Rural Development Program (TRDP). ” Kamla said with a laughter, “They came to our village to help us and we did not trust them in our first meeting.”

One could imagine how difficult this could have been to convince the men to allow their women to participate in public meetings in this patriarchal set-up.  Kamla adds, “It was even harder to convince the men when TRDP team revealed that the program was meant for women only. We were supposed to form women organizations which of course was a distant possibility as men thought it was transgression into their social domain”

“It was the perseverance of TRDP staff and their continued efforts to mobilize our elders which came to fruition when we were allowed to form our organization. We gradually learnt the secret of overcoming the poverty through our organized efforts and by linking with the key players of development like TRDP and local government.”

“Once the organization was formed we were asked to elect the president and manager as our representative”, says Kamla. “We did not know what president and manager meant. We laughed and whispered to one another how a woman can be a leader? After our meeting, we held discussions amongst ourselves and finally agreed to select two members as leaders. We decided to select members who were respected in the community, were trustworthy and could devote time to manage organizational affairs.”

“Some of the village men looked down upon us because we talked to strangers. Some even mocked at us commenting, ‘Now, these illiterate women will become presidents and leaders.’ They said, ‘You are not going to get anything from these meetings. You are just wasting your time.’ However, in these meetings, we had got a sense of self development. We could learn something new in every meeting. We learned about saving money, the importance of sanitation, health and hygiene.  Therefore, we continued attending meetings every month. The village men were not happy about our meetings with TRDP. Even, some of the women, who were not members of our organization, taunted us. The village men got agitated even more when TRDP asked us to attend trainings being organised in other towns and cities. We had never stepped out without a male escort. I had walked to other villages in search of drinking water but that too in a group. I had never imagined that someday an organisation would come and ask me to travel to different towns, attend workshops and learn new things, all for free of cost”, Kamla recounts.

Each member of women’s community organization prepared a micro investment plan for their households. In her plan, Kamla expressed the interest of opening a small shop. As the family’s previous shop had closed due to drought, Kamla wanted to restore her previous source of income. She said, “My husband could manage it well, so I decided to reopen a shop.” Families, who were more vulnerable, received income generating grants, but she received a loan from Community Investment Fund (CIF). In 2011, she received a CIF loan of Rs. 20,000. She bought goods with the money and opened a shop. She reinvested the profits to expand her shop and returned the loans in quarterly payments.

In the same year, TRDP provided concrete houses to the villagers through its low cost housing scheme of the Government of Sindh. Kamla explained, “The rains in 2011 hit the village hard. It damaged our mud-huts rendering most of us homeless. TRDP conducted a survey in the village and identified the households, whose huts were damaged. My family was also in the list. They provided me with two concrete-huts. The new shelter was much safer and secure for us. My husband did the necessary maintenance of our old shelter and kept the shop items there and we shifted to the new concrete house. Once our household economy improved I sent my children to schools like other members of our organization”

Kamla said that she had received a 15-day long tailoring training in 2011. With 5,000 Rupees from the profits of the shop, she bought a used sewing machine. “At home, I started to stitch clothes for villagers and contributed to my household income.” Her daughters also learned stitching clothes from their mother and helped her to meet the demands for of stitched clothes. She said, “I stitched two dresses per day and charged 200 Rupees per dress. After few months of the training session, when TRDP staff revisited us to observe our monthly meetings, they also took notice of my stitching skills.” Later, TRDP requested Kamla to become a Master Trainer and to teach other women in the neighbouring villages.

TRDP provided her with conveyance, food, lodging, and remunerated her with 1,000 Rupees per day for this assignment.

Kamla said, “With increase in my contribution to household income, my husband respected my decisions more. I observed a change in his behaviour when he asked for my opinion regarding purchases for the shop. My sons would not do anything without consulting me. I sent the younger children to school, while the eldest one studied at home and kept our shop. My eldest son learned business skills and is now mature enough to earn for the family.”

In 2013, Kamla applied for another CIF loan and received 30,000 Rupees. She told her son to keep cosmetics, shoes, fabric, kerosene oil and other basic items. With the profits, the family built a concrete shop.  “My husband continued teaching in the primary school, my son kept the shop, daughter stitched clothes for villagers and I provided training session to women in 50 Training Centres. In each Centre, I spent 15 days and the village women learned stitching clothes from me.  As a Master Trainer with TRDP over the years, I have earned about Rs. 750,000 (USD 7,500).  I bought sewing machines for both my daughters and daughter-in-law. I encouraged my daughter-in-law to become a member of our organization. Along with some other women, my daughter-in-law also learned the art of embroidery and artisan work from a vocational training provided by TRDP. She earns 1,000 Rupees per day. Now, she makes embroidered items and stitches clothes on demand. My two daughters have also learned the skills. Along with gold and livestock, I have given them sewing machines during the marriage. They are happily married and self-employed. They are able to participate in and contribute to their household incomes.”

Over the years, the family’s economic situation has improved dramatically and this is reflected in the quantity and diversity of its productive assets; the family owns 10 goats, three cows, a donkey, two motor bikes, a rickshaw for conveyance, and purchased 8 acres of land from the earnings they made through their businesses. The family now lives in two well-furnished concrete houses. They also have attached toilets.

“Now, as we are well aware about importance of hygiene and sanitation, we keep dirt away from our living space. I use my old mud huts as my kitchen and storage space. Now, we live in these comfortable concrete rooms. Recently, my husband has purchased a solar panel worth Rs 250,000 (USD 2,500) for electricity supply for our home and shops. We also have refrigerator, which makes our lives much easy”, said Kamla.

Kamla has now become a role model for other poor women in Tharparkar. She has set the example of fighting poverty through collective action of women for which their organization provided the platform. Kamla concluded with these remarks: “Our external conditions of wretchedness have not changed but we have learnt the art to transform our lives by putting our collective and individual potential to productive work”.

The transformative power of human agency is enormous. Kamla and her comrades provide the hope and optimism amidst appalling conditions of life for a poor woman in Tharparkar. It is all about deploying the instruments of development to vitalize the human potential of change. The initiative of UCBPRP is a great example of unleashing the potential of socioeconomic change through synergy and symbiosis. The impact of this collaboration between government, civil society and the people goes beyond the project’s life cycle as nobody on earth can put Kamla back in extreme poverty.

Amir Hussain in a senior development professional and one of the leading columnists of English language newspapers in Pakistan.

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