Rizwana Shah

Rizwana Shah was born into a family with meager resources in one of the most conservative parts of Pakistan, the province of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa. After completing her 12th grade (intermediate studies) with great difficulty, Rizwana’s family gave her hand in marriage to a man of their liking. Rizwana’s husband, a driver by profession, tirelessly drove cars to earn an income and support his family. Circumstances took a turn for the worse when Rizwana’s husband, the sole earner of the family, was diagnosed with Hepatitis and a heart disease making it difficult for him to put in long hours of work to earn a decent income. It became increasingly challenging for Rizwana, a mother of three, to make ends meet. With no support from her own family or in-laws, Rizwana decided to take matters in her own hands. In an effort to empower herself financially, Rizwana started stitching clothes for a local supplier. For two years, Rizwana put in countless hours of hard work and dedication and worked into the darkness of the night, but could only earn a negligible amount as her wage. A distraught Rizwana, found out about Kashf Foundation’s micro-credit program, and recognized the opportunity to venture out into her setting up her own business. With an initial loan of PKR 30,000 ($300), Rizwana procured the raw material required to establish her own stitching business. Initially, Rizwana started her business on a small scale, which she was able to expand from the profits she earned. Over time, Rizwana became Kashf’s Business Incubation Lab client, where she learnt about the benefits of marketing and was successful in growing her business by a great deal. Prior to taking a loan from Kashf Foundation, Rizwana used to earn a mere income of PKR 3000 per ($30) month, but ever since she started her own business, Rizwana earns a profit of PKR 6000 ($60) from her vocational center, PKR 10,000 from her beauty parlor, and PKR 20,000 ($200) by taking customized clothing orders. Growing profits from her business enabled Rizwana to buy 11 stitching machines, 1 knitting machine and 2 saddle machines for her business. Rizwana’s journey as an independent, female entrepreneur is an uncommon one in the patriarchal landscape of Mansehra. Rizwana has risen from the soil where women are silenced every day; and are customarily pushed to the bottom by virtue of their gender solely. Having lived through and emerged from the despairs of an impoverished life as a woman in Mansehra, Rizwana has sought to become a pillar of support for other girls in her community, who found themselves in similarly distressing situations. In a community where girls suffer their powerlessness in silence, and are not allowed to step out of the four walls of their homes, Rizwana faced a lot of resistance in her endeavor to empower girls around her; often being titled as a nonconformist in the Hazara community on her village. However, Rizwana persevered through the admonition and fought for the rights of the women in her community. She went to the homes of each girl, and educated their families on the importance of learning skills and becoming independent. Due to a lot of familial reluctance, Rizwana organized work for these girls which they could do from within their own homes, providing each with personal supervision and training them in skills such as stitching and embroidery free of cost. She started off by convincing fifteen girls (and their families) in her community to venture into stitching suits, and personally took the responsibility to sell it for them. The process of gaining the trust of her community, and encouraging them to break away from ancient patriarchal norms was slow, but rewarding. As her business and profits grew, and more women of her community financially benefited from the skills she had taught them, she proved to the male members of her community that the very women they had kept confined within the boundaries of their homes were equally competent as them. Recently, Rizwana opened a vocational and training center, named after her daughter ‘Iman’, which focuses on providing girls in Mansehra with skills and training that they could use to earn a living and become financially independent. In a landscape barren of opportunities for girls, Rizwana’s vocational and training center in Mansehra is a breath of fresh air. Currently, the center is preparing twenty-five young girls with the faculty to change their own lives, and to script their own fates- customarily written by the male members of their community. She has also opened a parlor where she trains and employs several women from her community, creating another platform of female empowerment. Rizwana recognizes the root cause for the suppression of women in her community to be the patriarchal mindset, and strives to change this through an innovative approach. She tirelessly works to mobilize influencers in her community by organizing workshops and dialogue with parents and decision-makers. She encourages them to recognize the potential of their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives, and motivates them to develop their skills in a productive manner. Even though Rizwana faced a great deal of opposition for the bold manner in which she challenged customs, she continued to fight for her cause with unparalleled grit and bravery, frequently stating “Losing my courage meant the loss of confidence for all these women in my community, which was unacceptable to me.” Rizwana believes that achieving peace within a society begins foremost on an individual and, household level, which would inevitably lead to a peaceful community. She advocates that conflict-free households would create a harmonious community. She has taken on the most pressing causes of conflict- skewed gender-based power structures, and poverty- and decided to do something about it. While her efforts have provided material relief and sustenance to many families, her battle is much larger than that. She has been a source of support and strength to several powerless women in her community who were victims of violence by their husbands. Not only did she take them in and provide them with shelter, she trains these women with various skills and enables them to stand on their own feet. In one such case, Rizwana learned that Gul Bibi- a mother of two in her village- was getting profusely beaten by her husband. She stormed to their house and pulled the victim out of the abusive clutches of her husband. In a community, where daughters are told to not return to their parents’ home unless in a coffin, Rizwana’s true feat lay in the part she played to encourage the parents of the victim to take her in and provide her with a safe environment. She also took the girl under her mentorship and helped her set up her own business. Subsequently, she also played a pivotal role in Gul Bibi’s success in attaining a divorce from her violent husband, and getting the custody of her two children. Today, Gul Bibi has re-married and is living a life of contentment with her children and kind husband. She continues to do her business and earns to support her children. She refuses to be pulled back into a life of dependency and need. She now lives a life of dignity, respect and peace. Today, more than hundred women in Mansehra, and a larger number of families, have been impacted by Rizwana’s advocacy efforts. She has fought hard to empower the women in her community. Not only has she been successful in providing these forgotten members of her society with the capacity to change their own lives, but has initiated a cultural shift in the patriarchal mindset that has ruled the country for centuries. Rizwana’s efforts were recognized by PHKN (‘Pakistan Hoslamand Khawateen’-Pakistan’s Courageous Women), for her active role in empowering women in her community. Kashf Foundation and Pakistan Poverty Fund also recognized her contributions and gave her the title of ‘best client’.
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