Development: Transforming lives

ABBAS ALI MAJIDKUTZ

DAWN

Altit Fort is located in one of the most beautiful places on earth — the valley of Hunza. This magnificent 1,100-year-old fort is standing in a highly strategic location on the cliff of a mountain at the edge of Altit village. The stark blue Hunza River runs beneath the fort at approximately 100m deep. This seemingly dangerous but foundationally solid location was chosen to protect the fort from any potential invasion at that time.
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A decade back Altit Fort was in a highly dilapidated condition due to negligence and lack of proper maintenance since it was abandoned by the old Mirs of Hunza. Unfortunately, in Pakistan negligence towards our precious heritage sites is very common, except for a few lucky ones. Altit Fort became one of those few highly lucky heritage sites when it was chosen by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) for restoration and to rehabilitate as a historic monument representing the craftsmanship, wisdom and social, economic and political engagement of the people within and around Hunza.

The restoration of the fort, costing millions of dollars, was completed over a period of six years. Although the restoration of this historic monument is itself a great achievement which has won the prestigious Unesco heritage award for the quality of its restoration work, the most alluring aspect is the concept of creating social enterprises where the preservation of heritage is synergised with socio-economic outcomes. The Aga Khan Cultural Services, Pakistan (AKCSP), which is responsible for the management and operations of the Altit Fort, has ventured on a programme incorporating gender development initiatives, linking it with hands-on socio-economic empowerment of women on a sustainable basis.

One of the major issues faced by the people of Hunza and particularly by women is lack of employment opportunities, despite the female literacy rate being above 90pc. A major problem women face is lack of mobility, while majority of young men of the area are seeking jobs in the major cities of Pakistan or abroad. Young females cannot continue their education beyond matric or intermediate due to financial constraints.

One of the waitresses working at the Altit Fort Café stated “I have done FA [intermediate] but could not continue my education due to financial restraints and I got married a couple of years back. For the last three years I was sitting idle at home, despite trying to get a job as there are very limited job opportunities in selected areas such as teaching for which there is very tough competition. Girls with MA and M.Sc degrees can get these teaching jobs in Hunza. It was a highly frustrating situation for me; we had acute financial problems but I could not contribute to improve the situation and support my family. This only-girls-run café initiated by the AKCSP provided a job not only to me but for four other girls as well. Now we are highly satisfied and many of our financial problems have been resolved and my child is now going to a good school.”

The initiative of social enterprise underpins a broad social, cultural, economic, gender and historic concept of empowering the local communities through strengthening grassroot-level stakeholders. Farah, a young and dynamic girl who heads the social enterprise project, says that their mission is to create maximum employment opportunities for the women of Hunza. Currently, there are around 200 girls in the fields of carpentry, masonry, plumbing, electric work, designing, hostels and music.

All these activities were traditionally male oriented; till 2003 there was not a single woman working in these fields but now a whole cadre of highly trained professional women have been inducted whose quality of work is appreciated by locals and now they are in great demand.

Farah, standing proudly with her other female colleagues, stresses on the equality of women and men, she herself belongs to Hunza and recently graduated in cultural studies from Italy. She says that the average income of women working in the social enterprise programme is Rs15,000 per month. It is a smart income as compared to the minimum wage limit of Rs10,000 set by the government and where more than 35 million people earn only less than $1 per day. Some of the women working here are internally displaced persons (IDPs), some are widows and some are the main bread-earners of their families. With this income they and their families are leading an honourable and dignified life; their children are going to schools and have appropriate healthcare opportunities. Farah argues that in initiatives similar to that of Hunza, women all over Pakistan could contribute and perform in all spheres of life if they are provided opportunities by eliminating the false walls of discrimination on gender basis.

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DSCN9193It is highly interesting to see in a part of Pakistan all those women working in workshops of woodwork, some laying electric wires in homes, some hammering stone while others holding laptops in their arms standing at the walls of under-construction buildings to verify the design elements. These women don’t fear men as if they are cannibals or aliens, nor are they shy of them; rather they stand confidently, honourably and with dignity as equals. In contrast to this situation where women and their families are enjoying fruits of freedom, there are women in this country who are not even allowed to walk out of the door of their homes even for a medical check-up let alone to work as a professional plumber or carpenter.

There is nothing very particular about these brave and intelligent women of Hunza which women in other parts of Pakistan lack. The only difference is that opportunities were created at the Altit Fort in a manner that allow women to venture into the fields dominated by men for centuries. It is also important to consider the challenges to take these initiatives by women in a transparent way; based on ethical and moral values of the communities they are located in.

Learning from the model of social enterprises programme at Altit Fort it is highly possible to replicate this model at the national level in many areas of Pakistan. Such social initiatives which are embedded in the local communities, cultures and value systems could easily facilitate millions of women across Pakistan who otherwise are victims of acute poverty, and social and economic maltreatment.

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