The following post has been contributed by Khalida Brohi, who founded Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) – working within tribal customs in Balochistan to empower women. A fellow of the Unreasonable Institute, Khalida Brohi has demonstrated the ability of passionate young people to enact change from within their communities.

Looking back it seems like forever when living life according to my own choices has been a very ordinary and possible thing for me. I can easily count myself to be among the regular modern girls with almost every necessity of life but the truth is in this liberated life of mine when I receive a book to read, hundred of girls in my own community go without any education at all and when I am asked about what I want, girls in my family are given off into marriages without their slightest knowledge and choice…

Life offered me much more then I could ever imagine, I got my freedom, education, opportunities and power of decision making that no other girl in my family or community could get, I lived my life distributed between two very distinct realities: one my original inheritance, the second my gained identity.

My original inheritance is that I belong to a tribal community in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, to a society where traditions fix the fate of each girl to a family, where the birth of a son is celebrated with gunfire while a daughter’s birth is mourned. But luck turned out that I became the first girl in my community who could get her education in Karachi, and I was provided every opportunity to grow and learn and encouraged to speak my mind. In other words I became a fortunate recipient of getting a very different fate living inside a circle where there was no escape from customs that enforced seclusion, male dominance, wata satta (exchange marriages), arranged marriages, child marriages and even giving off girls into marriages as a means to settle tribal disputes.

Growing up I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between my life and the life of my own cousins and I had a constant intention to use my freedom as a source to make sure other girls in my community are as lucky as I am. But while already surrounded by disheartening realities, at the age of 16 I witnessed another heinous crime veiled in the name of customs. It was the murder of a girl in the name of so-called honor who chose her own marriage partner. That was the year I finally came to know about honor killings.

But my question was; could culture go as far as to murder women?

So it was, hundreds of women were being murdered under a veil of custom called honor killings for their actual or perceived “immoral” behavior and for bringing shame to their families. That behavior could be marital infidelity, refusal to submit to an arranged marriage, asking for a divorce, or flirting with a man. According to the United Nations about thousands of women are killed in the name of honor each year.

Being at such a young age and exposed to a brutal reality among many others that I already lived in, I took to doing whatever it was in my power to stand against traditions that enforced such laws for women and girls.

I didn’t know what exactly to start with, and what to do first. I started going house to house in my village and talking to girls to join me, and it was in 2005 I helped found Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) in Balochistan, to empower other Pakistani women to have an equal, powerful say in the decisions of their life and provide socio-economic empowerment to girls and women to enable them a strong leadership in their households as well as in the society.

But challenging the patriarchal hierarchy is a daunting, and sometimes dangerous, undertaking. Realizing that tribal elders and mullahs would never allow me and my team to directly contradict the tribal traditions that lead to wata sata (arranged marriages), child marriages, and honor killings, we adroitly worked on changing perceptions from within. PDI soon established an innovative program called Sughar (Skilled and confident woman in local language) to promote and preserve the positive traditional customs of embroidery, music and tribal languages; while raise awareness of women’s issues by organizing wildly popular cricket matches and street theaters in villages; and empower women with income-producing Embroidery and Basic Education Centers, where women can learn, talk, share stories, and support each other while they work. By working within the traditional culture we were able to get villagers to accept and participate in our program, while we delivered messages of women’s empowerment and equal status.

Often times it has been debated that how could PDI expect good results when so much of opposition stands guard at the deep roots of any tribal community in Pakistan.

The truth is unlike other organizations PDI refuses to disrespect the existing ancient traditions and without standing against the tribal customs PDI directly engages the tribal leaders at village level by promoting three positive aspects of traditions such as traditional music, language and embroidery, thus to emphasis on the positive aspects and later discouraging the customs like wata satta, honor killing and child marriages PDI is able to convey a more clearer message then to create a chaos of opposition. This not only allows us admittance in the tribal setups but their full participation in our activities.

PDI further provides socio-economic opportunities to women under the Sughar program by establishing Women Learning and Skill Development Centers. We establish these centers in selected rural communities where each center gives an 18 month course to tribal rural women on value-adding and renovating the traditional embroidery and also provide basic education and literacy skills and raise awareness of rural women which builds their capacities towards decision making and contribution in their households and lives. The embroidery is later marketed via various means including Marketplaces of PDI and various exhibitions and stalls around Pakistan. Each course offers a minimum loan to each woman after graduating to initiate Primary Production Units (PPUs) at their homes, which are linked to the main market outlets established in three cities of Pakistan that is Karachi, Quetta and Khuzdar.

In this whole process PDI also educates men and advocates for the rights of women by various means such as organizing cricket tournaments, interactive theater, SMS, FM radio, Info- activism, digital advocacy and other media sources.

To date PDI is running the program Sughar in several districts of Balochistan benefiting about 2000 women.

While in 2008 PDI launched another of its programs in Sindh Province called Land for Women (LWP) when according to Benazir Bhutto Government Land Distribution Program, Sindh Government started distributing land among landless peasant women in Sindh. PDI took charge of monitoring this process in 2008 and when the program resulted in huge flaws and corruption, a large-scale advocacy and awareness campaign was launched by PDI with the support of Oxfam to enable tribal women in Sindh receiving their full right.

LWP raised awareness of the Government Land Distribution Program in various unreachable areas of Sindh by FM radio and other local procedures, distributed free application forms to thousands of women, helped in filling out forms and even provided transport to the open katcharies where land was to be distributed. PDI also offered legal support to hundreds of women who ended up with litigation matters upon them after receiving land. Eventually within three years, the Land for Women Program of PDI directly helped provide land to about 50% of the 3000 women from Sindh that have won lands.

It has been a long journey at PDI till now, while a longer one still awaits us, but everyday that moves ahead we grow as a team with much inspiration, persistence and dignity. Because in the end of each long day we do see smiling faces of women and girls with growing leadership powers and believe me that’s exactly what keeps us going.

I would never forget the day Zeenat wrote to me her name for the first time ever in one of PDI Women Learning and Skill Development Centers, going with a long, loud and proud pronunciation of Zee…naaaaa….thhh….