LEC academic helps pave a pathway to prosperity for underprivileged women and girls in Pakistan

Pakistani women and girls © Centre for Law and Justice

The Dalit or Scheduled caste – formally known as the “untouchables” – is traditionally the lowest caste in the social hierarchy of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, typically segregated from wider society, denied access to education, and forced to work in menial, poorly-paid and hazardous occupations, such as sanitation and scavenging. Dalit peoples have some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of literacy in comparison to members of other castes within the region. In Pakistan, young Christian or Hindu Dalit women often face a triple burden of discrimination due to their non-Muslim identity, their gender, and their caste status, and represent one of the most disenfranchised communities within the Indian subcontinent.

Dr Sally Cawood, Lecturer in Economic Geography at Lancaster, alongside Mary James Gill and Asif Aqeel of the Centre for Law and Justice (CLJ) based in Pakistan, have spent the past year running a free educational initiative for Christian Dalit women in Lahore, borne out of a shared passion for advocating for the rights and dignities of sanitation workers in South Asia. Comprising of four months’ worth of classes, the Prosperity Fellowship Program aimed to equip the women and girls with skills in English language communication, digital literacy, and critical thinking, as well as providing them with an understanding of their fundamental human rights to enable them to transcend the boundaries that their society has typically constrained them to.

Funded by the British Council Gender Equality Partnerships, the program consisted of approximately 83 classes, delivered in two session blocks three days a week, with opportunities to meet potential future employers throughout. The initial program was open to 30 women and girls aged between 16 and 24, and additional funding provided by the FST Engagement Fund allowed for the provision of community engagement workshops, which permitted the young women who attended the programme to share their learning with friends, family, and neighbours and inspire others like themselves. A short video documenting the outcomes of the program was commissioned by CLJ, alongside a storyboard illustrating the journey of ‘Christina’, a fictional representation of the fellows experiences, designed by the fellows themselves, and brought to life by PositiveNegatives.

About her work on the project, Dr Cawood said: ‘It has been a pleasure working alongside Mary, Asif, Bakhtawar and colleagues at CLJ on this important project over the past year. Mary and Asif have been working tirelessly to advocate for sanitation workers and their families in Pakistan. This seminal project – a long-term vision of Mary and Asif – was one of the first to support the children of sanitation and domestic workers, namely young women and girls, who face multiple layers of discrimination. The project aimed to understand and break the barriers in access to further education, beyond secondary school, and to alternative career pathways. This is just the beginning of a long journey, the next priority being how to support the fellows as they pursue their further education and career goals, but I'm glad to have been part of it!'

The Executive Director of CLJ, Mary James Gill, added: "A core objective of our program is to empower children of sanitation workers, particularly those from stigmatized religious minority groups in Pakistan, enabling them to confront and overcome societal challenges intensified by religious and caste-based discrimination. While all these children often face significant stigmas and are unfairly labelled as lazy or unmotivated, young girls are particularly vulnerable due to intersectional challenges linked to their gender, poor religious minority status, and low-caste background.”

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