Married as a child bride at age 12 in rural Pakistan, Ghulam Sughra Solangi rose against all odds to become a leader and voice for oppressed women in her community. She is a renowned trailblazer for women’s rights and leadership who has spent most of her life struggling for the rights of marginalized communities in rural Sindh. She is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Marvi Rural Development Organization and she is one of the luckiest Pakistani women who became first Ashoka Fellow in 1999 and in 2011 received International Women of Courage Award by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
EA: Our readers would like to know about our early life and how you begin your career.
SS: I was born on March 02, 1970 in village Muhammad Arab Solangi, Tehsil Kotediji Khairpur Mirs, Sindh Pakistan. My father Mr. Muhib Ali was the Teacher in Government School. In my early life I wanted to seek education but my wishes never came true because of this cultural taboo prevalent in most of our villages that females have no need to leave the house premises for the sake of education. I got married at the age of 12. My husband abandoned me when I was 20, accusing me of being unattractive and illiterate.
After my divorce, I had nothing left in life but to take care of my two young children. After moving back home with my parents, I felt rejected and humiliated and was near committing suicide, but I kept going. I expressed desire to learn, but largely due to cultural norms, I was discouraged by my brothers. Nevertheless, I began studying on my own, and eventually, one of my brothers came forward and allowed an older cousin to help me. Within four years, I passed the matriculation exam. Although people ridiculed and humiliated me when I started studying but I didn’t lose heart. To support myself and my children, I did embroidery until late in the evening.
So then I assured myself and my family that I want to be on my own and I must get an education.
In 1989, I became a teacher at the girl’s primary school in my village. But my thirst for education was much bigger than that. At the age of 31, without any formal schooling, I successfully completed Bachelor of Education. So from there, work on Marvi Rural Development Organization began as I, along with others, started to take baby steps for the welfare of rural women, making them aware about their fundamental rights. Many objected that, even my brothers, but my ambition was strong and I wanted to do something for humanity.
EA: You have been an advocate of women rights for many years – what has been your cause of motivation?
SS: Motivation behind my work for women is solely because of my bitter past. As a matter of fact, bitterness of situations can only be felt if one has him/her self has tasted or gone through it. Likewise, sustainable cure lies in proper diagnosis of illness. I have seen the cultural conservatism to which the women of rural areas are subjected to, victimized since ages in the name of oldest traditions like Karo Kari, Early, Forced & Wata Sata marriages, gender based violence, feudal lords’ sexual exploitation and modern forms of slavery sort of miseries which are often left unreported & unnoticed. I think that is the intrinsic driving force behind my work.
EA: Tell us about Marvi Rural Development Organization?
SS: Marvi Rural Development Organization was established in 1994. The main focus is to create Social and economic empowerment of the rural women and communities at the grassroots level and also to enhance the role and socio-economic status of people especially women of backward rural communities by providing them assistance & sustainable prospects. To do this, the MRDO organizes workshops, seminars, meetings. Public meetings attract hundreds of women. MRDO has reached 2,87,759 vulnerable women in the year 2013 through its technically researched and designed projects based on the most immediate and relevant needs of underserved communities.
EA: What needs to be done in order for women and girls to live in a safe world?
SS: In my opinion if everyone among us started to think & contribute in person, regardless of how little in his power, he should play his part with crystal clear intention for betterment of innocent women & girls. These small contributions when combined will result major and distinct change around us. Additionally women need to be more aware of their basic human and legal rights. Ignorance from their own rights further keeps them disadvantageous and therefore tends to be vulnerable in male dominant domains.
EA: What are the problems being faced by the rural women of Pakistan?
SS: There exists victimization against rural women which deprives them of their rights. Education is a dynamic force which could provide those rights to women. The feudal system is responsible for the deprivation and atrocities against women in rural areas. However media has played a positive role for indicating honor killing, torture and harassment against women.
I believe that until physical development (e.g. roads, electricity, water supply, and schools) is accompanied by an attitudinal change, the quality of life for women will remain unchanged. In rural Pakistan, women are unable to derive any benefit from most developments in their communities because of customs that discriminate between men and women. I am enabling young girls to go to school and become educated and empowered by removing the economic barrier. However, things are changing now. Thanks to awareness campaigns launched by different non-profit organizations, civil society stakeholders the media and judiciary.
EA: After receiving award for courage from US and representing Pakistan, what change have you made in your society?
SS: It was a really immense pleasure and honored feeling for me to represent my country’s flag in US air and soil. I take this recognition as the recognition of every deprived women and girl of my beloved country for playing her own part for the betterment of vulnerable women. As far as change is concerned, it is a continuous and gradual process which might take ages. As a matter of fact I cannot claim depth and volume of change that has resulted from my efforts but I do feel proud.
EA: How do you rate civil society organizations, particularly NGOs, in promoting the issue of women rights?
SS: Civil society organizations (NGOs) are playing the sheet anchor role for the elimination of women issues because they have practically delivered by generating viable results. Yet their approach and number with respect to prevalence of issues is pretty limited due to capacity, budgets, regulatory and limited authority. And for this I personally urge the state to strengthen the civil society’s culture and extend the level of trust in them by overall monitoring with consistency and coming up with comprehensive policies to eradicate women issues.
EA: What is your message to the women of Pakistan?
SS: My greatest wish is for women to become independent entrepreneurs and to earn a living without fear, rural areas included. Women make up 52% of the nation’s population and it is only fair that their employment ratio is increased. There should also be greater female representation in parliament and they should be accorded the right to property inheritance. Not forgetting that women rights issues, education and health are other sectors that require continuous focus. Women are not an asset, nor are they mere human beings. They are the pride of society. From raising the children to educating our youth, they carry the largest burden to help us comprehend how important life is and why it should be preserved for the greater good of mankind.
Q9: If given a chance how will you define yourself?
SS: A woman who has struggled.