When citizens are unaware of their rights, it is easy for the state to renege on its responsibilities. This simple idea is the driving force behind the Roshan Pakistan Foundation, which aims to break the cycle of poverty and generational debt endemic in the country’s most remote areas.
“I got together a group of lawyers, friends and people in my network and we started going out to remote parts of the district, talking to people about their rights,” says Muneer Ahmed, a lawyer and founder of Roshan Pakistan, based in Jhang, Punjab. “We talked about women’s rights, labour issues, children’s rights and education.”
When it comes to education, Ahmed agrees that the myths surrounding the subject need to be dispelled. “Every parent wants to send their children to school,” he says. “That is not the problem.” The problem is that many of the poorest families see no benefit in sending their children to school. The cycle of poverty is hard to break and many are trapped in centuries-old systems of exploitation. “There are thousands who are crushed under the system of bonded labour, and this includes children. We figured that if we want to get these children into school we will have to support their families in some way.”
Starting out in the villages of Bulla Patwana, Massan and Pir Kot Sadhana in Jhang District, Ahmed began searching for ways in which to make it possible for even the poorest parents, including bonded labourers, to send their children to school. Income support is in many cases the key to transforming the prospects of a family and women are often the ones who benefit most from such schemes. “I figured that if we engaged the women in the community, their families would have additional income and they would be able to send their children to school.”
Although himself a lawyer, Ahmed has a background in agriculture. The first initiative Roshan Pakistan launched was to involve women from the community in tunnel farming. Along with this project to generate income, Roshan Pakistan engaged the community through seminars and discussions to increase awareness about education issues. “You have to convince people that their economic prospects will improve by putting their children in school.” Ahmed says. “You have to persuade them that by not investing in education they may be saving a bit of money but it is a short-term gain. In the long term education is what will open doors for their children and for the family as a whole.” As a result of this work, Roshan Pakistan has already managed to enrol close to 500 boys and girls from the poorest households in these remote villages.
Ahmed does not belong to a wealthy family and does not think wealth is necessary to make change happen. “My parents were small landowners with just 5-6 acres,” he says. “For me it is simply a matter of being grateful for what you have and then upholding your responsibility to help others. You just need to find likeminded people and get on with it.” Today Roshan Pakistan has around 50 volunteers who give of their time because they are passionate about the issues. The organisation does not raise funds formally and its work is financed through donations from supporters, friends and family, and professional networks.
Roshan Pakistan’s model—awareness raising coupled with schemes to generate income—has the potential to affect change across the country. “Our work can be expanded and anyone can do it,” says Ahmed. “It is a small thing we are doing but it does make a difference and when more people get involved it has a ripple effect.”
Providing free education to every child between the ages of 5 and 16 is the responsibility of the state, enshrined in the Constitution. Ahmed believes the government has not lived up to this obligation. “I am sure there have been improvements in education in some parts of the country,” he says. “But from what I have seen myself, the government is not doing enough.”
Instead of waiting for the government to act, Roshan Pakistan stepped in to assist some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. In doing so it has found solutions to intractable problems—bonded labour, child labour, endemic poverty—and brought hope for a better future to thousands. “All you need to do is to show people the path to education and they will take it,” Ahmed says.
Roshan Pakistan’s work in three remote villages in Jhang proves that breaking the cycle of poverty and debt does not always require major policy decisions or million-dollar interventions. Sometimes, a few individuals with an understanding of the issues and an eye for practical solutions is all it takes to bring about a transformation.