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News Article

Student voices: Women’s rights in Pakistan

This is part of a recurring series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant during the winter session.

Click here to read more reports from students.

By Hira Baig, MTS ’16, Harvard Divinity School 
Internship in Women’s Advocacy at Shirkat Gah in Karachi, Pakistan


Street view from my apartment in Gulshan Iqbal, Karachi

Street view from my apartment in Gulshan Iqbal, Karachi

I hadn’t been to Pakistan since 2002 and was, admittedly, very nervous for my trip. I had family in Karachi that I was in touch with over the years, but I couldn’t help and be a little concerned about my new immersion to the city. Pakistan was a place I had faint memories of as a child. I lived there for three years in my adolescence and had visited when I was just nine years old for a wedding. Returning to Pakistan at this age for a work opportunity meant I’d be reacquainted with a city that time and distance were making me forget.

I spent my winter break in Karachi, Pakistan doing an internship for a women’s rights NGO called Shirkat Gah. Shirkat Gah does local, national and international outreach in order to help women in rural Pakistan build better lives for themselves. They have four branches of work that are their main focus: women’s bodily rights, women’s voices, political environment and natural environment. Their staff works under these branches on various projects for women. These activities include but aren’t limited to research, capacity building and training, resource development and legislative advocacy.

I was most interested in Shirkat Gah’s work on behalf of women that needed assistance in family/personal status law matters. I learned that Shirkat Gah works with community partners in villages around Pakistan to lead training and information sessions for women to gain access to legal aid in times of need. I was able to help the Karachi office by researching and drafting memos for new outreach areas and doing research on the sorts of difficulties women come across and what type of legal assistance is needed. Being at Shirkat Gah allowed me to gain insight into the sorts of issues women face in Pakistan and the changing face of feminism in the country.

Sitting on a camel at Seaside Clifton Beach

Sitting on a camel at Seaside Clifton Beach

Though the work was meaningful and interesting, my time outside the office was just as, if not more, educational than my time sitting behind a desk at a computer. Karachi is an enormous city. It’s busy, fast, loud, intimidating, and endearing all at once. Because I hadn’t been in many years and was returning as an adult, this time around, I was much more privy to observing facets of the city I had only read about in books and witnessed in the news. The cultural and economic stratification of the city was truly jarring. The gap between the rich and poor seems insurmountable and my heart ached for the many children I saw working during the school day, or worse, begging on the streets.

It was also through my experiences exploring the city with my family and friends that I realized the significance of the work Shirkat Gah does. I realized, that women are disproportionately at risk of facing extreme poverty because many young girls come from families that require they become maasis, or cleaning ladies, in order to support their households. The economic and social circumstances facing families in poverty in Pakistan are complex and couldn’t have been explained to me in this one trip, but I am eager to return to Pakistan to learn more about these issues and hopefully do some small part in trying to work towards solutions.