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ChunriChoupaal-A meeting place for women to get access, Learn and Connect

During one of my visits to Pakistan, while on a visit to remote areas in the Thal desert of Pakistan, my life took a very interesting turn.

I was documenting the demonstration of student nurses and taking photographs of the chador-clad women sitting in the middle of the road, a rare sight in a remote city like Layyah. Some days later, a few young ladies came to visit me. One of them was Rashda, a fresh graduate from the local college. She had been interviewed for a job at a local relief organisation. The organisation needed female staff for helping out with their female beneficiaries. The only problem was that they needed someone with computer and internet skills. Rashda asked me if I could teach her how to use the computer for data entry in a day.

I was perplexed as I had a laptop but I had no time to teach her. At the back of my head, I knew this could be a life-changing moment for Rashda as no woman in her family had the opportunity to have an education or a career before. Not getting a job would mean she would soon be arranged to marry a (probably first) cousin from the next village up and spend the rest of the life as the property of her husband or in-laws and would be expected to make lots of children.

Not too long after that, I stumbled upon an opportunity for seed-funding of small technology related projects. I was very sad for not being able to help Rashda at that point. I wasted no time in designing a project and mobilising local women leaders, to empower young women of Layyah and neighbouring villages through a ‘women community technology center.’ Even though the project was welcomed by women from all walks of life including health, education and government sector, the six months it took for arranging things had been too late for Rashda. At the launch of the centre, with help from local women, Rashda did not show up for our inauguration event. I asked for her. Her older sister told me that she was married off to her cousin. To this day when I think of the incident, it feels like I lost a huge opportunity to make a change in a young girl’s life!

But that is not the end of this story.

Let’s take a closer look at the surroundings of Rashda and what stopped her from learning skills she needed for better opportunities in life. Pakistan is an agriculture based economy and more than sixty percent of the population lives in rural areas. Half of Pakistan’s population is women. Small cities like Layyah, and many other cities like it, share its modest available economic, health, educational and social welfare services with approximately 1,000 nearby villages. Rashda also came from a nearby village. The women in these villages are amongst the most under-privileged and oppressed groups with no freedom of movement or speech. They are forced to stay indoors and cannot be seen in public without their faces covered. Young women who manage to get an education often do not become part of the workforce due to social and cultural barriers. And if they manage to overcome those, they face gender discrimination in the job market.

The problem in Pakistan and other remote parts of the world is not only the physical access to the technology and infrastructure. The challenge is also the access to knowledge to implement and utilise such technologies through training, mentoring and technical support. The few women like Rashda, who manage to get access to education, do not become part of the workforce. In most countries, especially in rural and sub-urban areas, this is often due to a lack of access, knowledge and skills to use modern information and communication technologies.
These women would not be allowed to go to a male teacher in the market to learn professional skills, due to social and cultural barriers. Since there is no training center specifically for women, it leaves them with hardly any choice but to “choose” not to work. The few internet cafes that exist are predominantly frequented by males and have no training facilities available. Females cannot even imagine going there as the security and safety risks would outweigh any benefits they can get from Internet cafes. It is very uncommon to have a personal computer at home, and even less people have an Internet connection, so they have to look to alternative solutions for learning.

Women are socially and culturally barred from going to male-only places, which made the solution obvious. Why not begin a female-only technology centre where the local women can come and decide what they want to learn. Through the networks of the women and sympathisers, teacher for different skills can be arranged. The idea was welcomed by the women of the community. In no time we managed to fund-raise for equipment, found a venue, and also managed to find a local teacher who was willing to volunteer her time for the facility.

The challenges were many. But the fact that the project got the interest of women from all fields of life, was amazing. We got nurses, professor, students, teachers; most of whom told us that computers were taking over tasks in their workplace but they had not had the chance to learn about these technologies.

The small pilot project gave me an idea to start an initiative for women around the globe to have access to technology. My initiative is called ChunriChoupaal. A chunri is a brightly coloured scarf worn by women in South Asia. A choupaal is predominantly a sitting place where village elders (men) make decisions for the community members. A ChunriChoupaal Center is meant to provide a meeting place for future women leaders and change agents to come together, discuss their issues, learn and share skills. The main purpose of these centres is to provide an enabling environment for women to learn, work and meet other women. The project has received positive feedback from women around the world. We have created a non-profit organisation in the Netherlands and we are currently in the process of creating a fundraising group for the project. We have also started creating a global curriculum which can be used and modified according to a community’s local needs.

I feel I am at a unique position to start this initiative as I originally come from a rural background myself. I was lucky to have access to technology, enabling me to learn skills to use the computer and the internet. With the skills learned and connections and networks built, I ended up representing my country (Pakistan) at international forums like the UN’s Internet Governance Forum and highlighted the problems of young people in my community. With the network build over the years through the internet, my unique position of being connected to amazing group of women and organisations is giving me the strength to help other women leaders expand their horizons and unlock their potential by harnessing the power of digital media. I may not have been able to help Rashda, but this project will help many others like her.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Women Weave the Web Digital Action Campaign. Learn more »

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Comments

mrbeckbeck's picture

A brighter future thanks to you!

This is an incredible initiative Iffat! You are clearly making huge strides in improving the lives of women and girls, and thus, entire communities, countries. I am confident that your model will make a big impact.

I look forward to seeing the curriculum develop and adapt to local needs. The future is going to be so bright thanks to your work!

Thank you so much for your work, and for sharing the story here.

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Manager

Iffat Gill's picture

Thank you

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

Cheers!

Iffat Gill

Kim Crane's picture

wow!

It's so wonderful to see your name again here on World Pulse. It sounds like you are doing some amazing work. Thank you for participating in the campaign, illuminating these important issues, and providing an example of locally driven solutions to some huge global problems.

In admiration,

Kim Crane
World Pulse Web Editor

Iffat Gill's picture

Hi Kim, Thank you for your

Hi Kim,

Thank you for your comment. The locally driven solutions are the sustainable answer to many global issues.

Best wishes.

Iffat Gill

Julia O'Byrne's picture

You have great ideas!

Hi Iffat,
I loved reading your post. You are so organized, efficient and take such awesome initiative! I learned a lot from your post and was glad to get so much background. I know very little about women's lives in Pakistan and so am happy to have the opportunity to read first hand accounts. I found Rashda's story touching and in some ways sad - it shows how large some of the challenges are which prevent women from getting jobs, etc. However, I think the best part, as you said, that came out of your experience with Rashda is that with the help of these women only technology centres future college graduates looking for jobs like Rashda will have the computer skills necessary to get them hired. That is huge and it's in large part thanks to you. You're making a big difference!

I look forward to reading future posts of yours.

Best wishes,
Julia

Iffat Gill's picture

Thank you for your kind words

Thank you for your kind words Julia.
Best wishes.

Iffat Gill

kujamac12's picture

Great Initiative

Hello.
I congratulate you for a job well done.You are what the world needs, a powerhouse and a change maker.I love this initiative as it will change so many lives.What a beautiful legacy.keep up the good work.
Yours truly,
Kuja

Iffat Gill's picture

Dear Kuja, Thank you for your

Dear Kuja,
Thank you for your kind words.

Kind regards,

Iffat Gill

William's picture

women gaining computer skills

Dear Iffat, congratulations of your huge achievement in starting a learning center for women in Pakistan. That was a wonderful thing and will benefit many women, for years to come. Keep up the great job and please continue to let your community know how things are progressing.

Iffat Gill's picture

Dear William

Thank you for your kind message. I will try to keep updating the progress on the project.

Kind regards,

Iffat Gill

Lea's picture

This is so inspiring, Iffat.

This is so inspiring, Iffat. I am so impressed by your determination to help other women feel empowered by training them in using technology so that they can make their voices heard and share their stories with other women. It gives me hope when I read stories from women like you who are dedicated to supporting others and to actively involving themselves in bettering the lives of others and in making a difference in their communities. You're truly doing amazing work! Let me know if I can helpful in anyway. I have experience teaching English online through Skype. So, if there is ever need for online teaching/mentoring, let me know!
Congratulations!!!!

Iffat Gill's picture

Thank you!

Hi Lea,

Thank you for your comment and the words of encouragement. I am touched by your offer to help. I am definitely getting in touch with you!

Kind regards,

Iffat Gill

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