Given the right opportunities, any child can succeed in life regardless of the circumstances of their birth. While millions of Pakistani children are out of school and millions more belong to families that are too poor even to afford proper meals, an orphaned child is deprived of an entire support system. SOS Children’s Villages Pakistan addresses this problem, providing orphaned children a safe environment in which to grow and a loving family.
The SOS Village replicates a typical family set-up, with a mother, siblings, a home and a community. A child grows up with a group of other children, and biological siblings are never separated. The mother figure is responsible for meeting the children’s day-to-day needs, providing the love and care that any mother would give. In this way, children are raised as part of a family, albeit one not necessarily connected by birth.
“I was just four years old when I came here with my two older brothers,” says Seemab Sharif, now 21. “I found a home, a family and a loving mother.” Each child lives in a ‘home’, a self-contained unit with a living area, kitchen, separate bedrooms for girls and boys, and a room for the mother. A ‘village’ typically consists of 15 such family units, along with a community hall, mosque, director’s offices, workshop, dispensary and playgrounds.
“The children go to school until Class 10, and there is a girls’ high school and boys’ high school,” says Shafa Ahsan, SOS Media Manager. “We also have scholarships for higher education.” For boys who do not pursue further studies, vocational training centres provide essential work skills. No matter how rough a child’s start in life, the SOS Village gives them a chance to become productive members of society.
Seemab graduated from the Punjab University with a Master’s Degree in Mass Communications and went on to secure a job at a popular television channel. “Everyone tells me that I’m confident,” she says. “I am confident because my mother gave me so much love and care.”
Along with a good education and a loving home, SOS aims to make childhood a rewarding and happy experience. Extracurricular activities are emphasised, with sports, musical events, games, cooking and art classes just some of the avenues children are able to explore. To help children remain in touch with the outside world, they are taken on regular field trips where they interact with other local children. Religious instruction is also a part of the children’s routine.
The first SOS Children’s Village in Pakistan was set up in Lahore in 1977. Since then, SOS has helped give thousands of disadvantaged children a fresh start. Today there are SOS villages in Dhodial, Faisalabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Sargodha and Sialkot, with plans to expand this network in the future.
What makes this a unique endeavour is the child-centred approach, and the focus on rehabilitation and rebuilding lives. Many children come to the village after a troubled early childhood, while some have suffered through violence or trauma, and psychological counselling is available. After completing their schooling, children are encouraged to pursue higher education and provided career counselling. For young women who prefer not to work or study further, SOS helps to arrange their marriages. Boys who do not go to college are given vocational training and accommodation in ‘youth homes’ until they have found work and are able to live independently.
In addition to children’s villages, SOS runs emergency relief programmes and has launched a rural support programme in Kasur. Rural support initiatives focus on women, and include community partnerships for development, microenterprise, microcredit, education, health, livestock care, the supply of clean water, and the hygienic disposal of waste. SOS plans to implement more such projects across the country.
In the four decades since they began work in Pakistan, SOS Children’s Villages have proved that with support and a nurturing environment, even children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can thrive and prosper, becoming successful and productive citizens.
Seemab is the perfect example. “I get a lot of support from my family,” she says. “ I share a unique bond with my mother and my siblings.” Seemab always wanted to work in the electronic media, and SOS allowed her to follow her dream. “Today I host a TV show, but my ambition is to become a news anchor.”