Neetan Teejo belongs to the lower-caste Kohli tribe from Sindh, Pakistan. Like most Kohli people – who are marginalised from the rest of society – Neetan is a landless peasant (or Hari), living and working on the estate of a wealthy landlord.
She and her extended family of 20 share a small two-room mud brick home on a small patch of land in the middle of an orchard.
For Haris, landlords are often the only source of credit for loans when families need to buy agricultural inputs or essential items. With few options and little knowledge of their rights, they are vulnerable to exploitation by crippling loan conditions.
These conditions can force whole families into working off a decades-old debt, making the value of their labour far greater than the original sum borrowed. This is known as ‘bonded labour’.
In 1992, bonded labour became illegal in Pakistan. However globally, it is most prevalent in South Asian countries and is the most common form of modern slavery today. Those who try to escape bonded labour are often attacked or threatened with violence.
Caste-based discrimination in countries like India and Pakistan can exacerbate the conditions that allow bonded labour to flourish, as marginalised groups have poor access to education and the justice system.
With little income and no formal education, Neetan has worked tirelessly as a human rights activist for many years and has helped dozens of families escape bonded labour. Her niece Neeli and Neeli’s family are now living with Neetan after she helped them escape.
“For a few days they stayed in Azad-Nagar – a camp for former bonded labourers. Now I have brought them here and helped them file a petition in court,” said Neetan.
Several other families who Neetan helped also live close by, working as farm labourers on a nearby estate.
Neetan is one of more than a thousand women in Pakistan who have trained for leadership with Oxfam and our partner organisations. Since 2008, Oxfam has run women’s rights programs in Pakistan, working to increase women’s participation in political processes and empower them to create positive change in their communities.
I visited the latest iteration of this program, a project called She Can Lead, in Pakistan earlier this year and met some of these women myself. When we visited a small village outside of Hyderbad I was amazed to see the women, young and old, so energetically embracing their role in being part of their community.
The vibrancy and colour of their scarves was matched by their passionate participation. It was notable that this is a journey that has involved men as well, and in this village the men understood that power had to be shared and that women have an important role to play.
It is incredible that in a country like Pakistan, with all of its complexities and extremes, that there are pockets of women engaging in politics and encouraging others to do the same. If you think that the biggest challenge in this country is to ensure that women are registered to vote – let alone go out to vote – it is extraordinary that women who have trained in this program have gone on to be elected to local office.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap report placed Pakistan 143 out of 144 countries on measures such as health, education and economic and political participation. A mere 45 per cent of girls are literate compared to 70 per cent for boys.
Supporting women to understand their rights, how to exercise them, and empowering them with activist know-how are all strategies aimed at strengthening Pakistan’s democracy.
Although democratic institutions have been around a lot longer than gender equality, we now know that the strength of a democracy is determined by the extent to which all people are able to shape the kind of society they want to live in.
There is an irrefutable correlation between a country’s economic growth and its degree of gender equality. If we needed another reason to support women’s rights, it’s that it makes economic sense.
Oxfam’s She Can Lead project, with funding from the Australian Government, has seen women return to their communities and apply their leadership skills in a broad range of ways.
Neetan has used her skills to fight for the rights of women and Haris in court, filing petitions, attending protests and counselling domestic violence victims.
“People come to me with their problems and I help them fight injustice, irrespective of whether they are Hindu or Muslim,” said Neetan.
“Before my training with Oxfam, I did not understand anything but now I know what the rights of women and peasants are and how I can use the courts to fight for them.”
Others, like Rana Ansar, have been elected to municipal office. Rana laughs as she recalls the day her husband took her to file her nomination papers on the back of his motorbike because they didn’t have a car.
Today, as a member of the Sindh assembly, she works on providing education, health and clean water to local communities. Rana said when she walked into the assembly for the first time, she kissed the ground. “My parents could never dream of entering this place, and here I was.”
Oxfam has now included our She Can Lead project as a part of the Oxfam Unwrapped program. Oxfam Unwrapped is a range of gift cards representing donations to Oxfam programs. Each card features an item we use in those programs, such as goats, chickens or clean water. The new ‘Women’s Rights’ Oxfam Unwrapped card provides crucial funding for the She Can Lead project.
So when you buy an Oxfam Unwrapped Women’s Rights card, you’re supporting women like Neetan and Rana.
And if you’re one of the many Australians looking for ethical and meaningful Christmas gift ideas this year, this could be the perfect option for the special woman, or man, in your life.
The generosity of our supporters is what allows this important work to continue. Sometimes this work can be slow-moving and sometimes the pace of change moves quickly.
Women like Rana prove that a woman’s potential is boundless once she’s empowered with the tools to recognise and exercise her rights: “I dream big now. I wonder how one becomes prime minister. I know now I can be the prime minister too, it’s not impossible.”
You can buy Oxfam Unwrapped gift cards online here or at any of the 10 Oxfam Shop locations nationwide. All purchases support Oxfam’s work tackling poverty in communities around the world.