Zakia Arshad began working for women and children's empowerment in the late 1970s, at a time when most poor and marginalized women were denied access to education and health. Women were largely considered the property of men.
In such an environment, activists like Zakia had an uphill struggle. Anybody who dared to speak up for women's rights came into conflict with the social, religious and political elite. Activists invariably had to deal with slurs on their personal reputation and integrity.
Zakia, however, was not deterred, and has now been working with marginalized women and children for over 25 years. She worked for 17 years with the Family Planning Association of Pakistan (FPAP) and from the mid-90s onwards, has been involved with the South Asia Partnership. The South Asia Partnership (SAP) is a consortium of five national organizations - in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. All these organizations work independently and coordinate with each other through SAP International's Secretariat based in Colombo. In Pakistan, SAP-PK, formed in 1989, is a leading NGO.
Under the Tawana Pakistan Project managed by Zakia for three years, 133,786 girls in 1,454 rural primary schools in six districts were provided with nutritional support everyday.
Zakia was born in Jhang, in Pakistan's Punjab province, daughter of refugees who came to Pakistan after Partition. Her parents were keen to educate their daughters. One of five sisters, Zakia was partly educated in Lahore, where her father was posted as a railway official and then in Karachi, after the family moved there. She graduated from university in Karachi.
Despite their encouragement for education, Zakia's family was conservative - they strictly observed purdah (veil) and other religious injunctions. Zakia found herself in disagreement with the traditions of the family and was the first woman in the family to be involved in political struggles.
Barely into her 20s, Zakia joined the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) and led many rallies violating the ban imposed by the military junta on the right to association. She would organize corner meetings followed by public rallies in Lahore. She was, at times, beaten during rallies. Recalling those days, Zakia says, "It was simply going beyond our tolerance to see the military running a nation of 14 million people for 11 long years. That is why I decided to join the Pakistani `intifada' against it."
Zakia's main role has been that of a master trainer with the FPAP, SOS Villages, the World Wildlife Fund, and a host of small organizations. She encouraged the FPAP to start smokeless chullah (environmentally friendly stove) projects. She even organized training events on the theme 'Health and Safety Measures for Household Women - Benefits of Smokeless Chullah' where around 500 women from all four Punjab provinces participated in the training.
Smokeless chullahs protect the health and safety of women and are environment friendly. Moreover, this stove, built of mud with an iron chimney, burns wood and dung, saving 35 per cent of traditional fuel resources. It does not blacken utensils and kitchen walls, saving a lot of time and energy. Successfully introduced and demonstrated, the stove technology has been adopted by the rural women across the four provinces of Pakistan.
In her role as an advocacy coordinator with SAP-PK, Zakia has held extensive dialogues and consultations, both at the micro and macro levels, with government agencies, NGO representatives, civil society actors, politicians, academics and the business community on issues pertaining to development, human rights, advocacy and the environment. She also has experience of working with different government departments, especially the ministry of women's development.
She has the rare gift of being able to comprehend a problem fully and has the knack of being able to arrive at solutions in consultation with stakeholders. She is also tech-savvy.
Zakia has formed a network of around 200 elected councilors in Punjab and conducted training for them, explaining the privileges and responsibilities of a councilor, relevant laws, how to develop small projects and schemes within budgets and so on. The mechanisms of conflict resolution especially with respect to women rights, family matters and violence against women, were also part of this training program.
Zakia has been part of many research programs, including the study of customs like wulver (bartering of women) and karo kari (honor killing) in tribal areas of all the four provinces. These research programs helped national development organizations understand the social construct as regards gender and tribal social organization.