The misfortune of being born a girl still horrifies those of us fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to reach for the light of social and economic freedom with the benefit of education. The dreams for 120,000 girls attending schools and colleges in Swat Valley were shattered when militants of Pakistan's Taliban began their assault on education for girls, in 2006. Girls were banned from attending schools and colleges. Through propaganda radio, militant messages were regularly delivered, claiming educating girls was against Islamic principles. By 2007, more than 30 percent of the girls dropped out of school. To further strengthen their philosophy of keeping girls ignorant, the militants began to enforce their ban by blowing up and setting fires to an estimated 400 schools, and terrorizing the people of the region.
Once described as the Switzerland of Asia, the lush and picturesque Swat Valley is approximately the size of the state of Delaware. About a hundred miles from Pakistan's three most important cities, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad, the region was governed by hereditary rulers, called the Wali, until 1969 when Pakistan took control. The unspoiled region with its towering mountains, its cascading rivers and luscious forests, then became a vacation paradise for wealthy Pakistanis, until power shifted to the militants of Pakistan's Taliban.
At first, the militants had a free hand and even gained support from the village people, who languished in poverty and hopelessness for years in Upper Swat. The wealthy landowners had done nothing to improve the condition of the people and the area was ripe for class warfare.
The militants successfully began to expand their stronghold with the support from the locals and targeted the wealthy. When control by the militants escalated with brutal force, the Pakistani government stepped in. Armed conflict began in 2004 but was quickly diffused with a truce. But, when the militants attempted to expand their power base by violating the terms of the truce, 30,000 Pakistani troops swarmed into Swat Valley to regain control in 2007. Fierce fighting between the militants and Pakistani troops in 2009 killed thousands of men.
Devastating floods, in 2010, brought more misery to the 1.8 million inhabitants. Women and children were forced to flee, taking refuge in makeshift camps, without clean water, proper sanitation and medicine.
The misery in the Swat Valley and the plight of thousands of women and children, who have lost husbands and fathers, gave birth to Swat Relief Initiative, headed by Zebu Jilani, the granddaughter of Mian Gul Jhanzeb, the last ruler (Wali) of Swat. Ms. Jilani banded her family together and began a grass roots movement to help her people, focusing efforts on those refugee campsites which were off the radar of international aid organizations. She spends months at a time among the displaced women and children of Swat. She works to improve the lives of the destitute through community development and awareness programs. Amrojan is a woman who came to one these camps.
Her feet lacerated and bleeding, Amrojan walked for miles before she reached a campsite with her three little girls. Exhaustion, hunger, dehydration and despair had taken a grave toll, and the 35 year old mother looked like a wrinkled old woman and her daughters were in a state of shock. So many women in Swat Valley tell similar stories.
The village people huddled together in fear, inside their padlocked shacks as fighting continued. One night, soldiers made announcements over loudspeakers and ordered villagers to evacuate their homes. The Pakistan army was preparing to commence bombing in the area where the militants were suspected of hiding.
That night, Amrojan gathered a few things in a bundle, wiped her husband's burning brow, and set out with her three young daughters. They walked for hours without direction, deeper and deeper into the forest till Amrojan's husband collapsed, his fever making him weak and dizzy. Weary and frightened, the girls wept. It was time to rest. Amrojan made a bed of leaves for her sick husband and the family snuggled together for warmth and fell into an exhausted slumber.
At sunrise, Amrojan woke up, her youngest still clinging to her breast and the other two of her daughters still sleeping in their father's arms, who had died during the night. With the help of her daughters, Amrojan collected twigs and sticks and scratched out a shallow grave to bury her husband. Within minutes, her status as a person had changed. A widow without a son is subject to dire social and legal consequences.
When she reached the campsite, Amrojan threw herself on the ground and wailed. "Now I am mirath," she beat her chest. "Who will care for me and my little girls? I have no sons. I am mirath." The word mirath, is a derogatory term used to humiliate a mother who has no sons. It is also used as a curse word to diminish and devalue a woman. A widow has no right to inherit her husband's property and daughters cannot inherit any of their father's property either. Everything goes to the brothers of the husband, and in this case, Amrojan and her daughters would be left at the mercy of their charity.
Swat Valley Relief Initiative strives to help women achieve a better quality of life through educational seminars on hygiene, nutrition and disease prevention for children and emphasizes the importance of sending girls to school. Through education, each generation of women will be empowered and will raise a better generation of children; daughters who will have an opportunity to achieve their full potential as human beings; and sons, who will learn to honor their mothers, their sisters, their daughters and their wives instead of suppressing and subjugating them.
Follow Rukhsana Hasib on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rukhsanahasib