Even though the big news in Pakistan right now is about the newly elected Prime Minster, deteriorating diplomatic relations with the United States, and match fixing charges on star cricketers, there is a less publicized–but important story–that CNN published last week, “Family’s 20 Kids Highlight Pakistan’s Population Explosion.” The article warns that Pakistan is currently among the top ten most populous countries, and by 2050 will rank third, behind only China and India. The authors attribute this population explosion to a lack of birth control and insufficient access to family planning information. And, while birth control and family planning organizations are certainly effective means to control population growth, the dissemination of information that counters prevailing cultural norms and attitudes that discourage limiting family size is also important. The article accurately describes “a majority of the population–70% is largely illiterate and resides in rural areas lacking the most basic services,” and it is in those regions in Pakistan that are most influenced by the deep conservatism that often views birth control as “un-Islamic;” however, it does not account for the large number of efforts that have been made to curb illiteracy in these areas. Well-known nonprofit organizations, including The Citizens Foundation and Development in Literacy, are focused on educating Pakistan’s rural populations, and DIL, in particular, focuses on countering female illiteracy.
DIL claims “empowering underprivileged students, especially girls” as part of their “student centered model schools in remote areas of Pakistan” as part of their mission statement. And female empowerment is exactly the kind of education that can help disseminate valuable information to facilitate controlling Pakistan’s population bulge. Successful NGO’s in the Microfinance space, including Grameen Bank, have demonstrated success in assisting with a reduction of birth rates of their members. Like DIL, Grameen Bank claims female empowerment as part of their mission, but, unlike DIL, it puts in place more direct mechanisms to achieve such objectives. Their “sixteen decisions” is testimony to a commitment to female empowerment by making finance contingent to social development goals, including the education of children, cleaner homes, maintenance and care for one’s health, personal discipline, and cooperation with other females in the community. Number 6 on Grameen’s list explicitly has women pledge “we intend to have small families,” and it is through these guidelines that their microfinance model is supplemented by female empowerment strategies that encourage family planning and overall develop the social environment in which they live. Similarly, microfinance organization Pro Mujer provides poor women with mechanisms for empowerment in Latin America as well as development opportunities through lending capital. Their approach reads:
While most microfinance institutions focus only on financial services, Pro Mujer uses a holistic approach, making sure that clients are better prepared physically, emotionally and economically to improve their lives and that of their children. Education is one strategy. Pro Mujer teaches women about domestic violence, communication skills, and women’s rights, using workshops and group discussions to raise their awareness about leadership, gender issues, and self-esteem. It also links clients with other organizations for counseling, legal assistance, and education and vocational training programs. Women also become empowered as they join and become active in their communal associations. Pro Mujer organizes women in groups of 18 to 28 clients and teaches them how to organize and manage a community bank. The women elect a board of directors to run the meetings, form a credit committee to approve loan applications, and create solidarity groups to guarantee each other’s loans. Members of the communal banks gain confidence and self-esteem as they successfully borrow and repay their loans, set up savings accounts, and become more aware of their own potential and abilities. What’s more, they apply their new skills as leaders in other community organizations.
Pro Mujer and Grameen Bank are first and foremost microfinance institutions as DIL is to education. These organizations converge in their commitment to “women’s empowerment,” but diverge in their mechanisms to achieve that objective. Microfinance and education are important development goals for a larger purpose of empowerment, and it is important that direct efforts are put in place that have a positive impact on female empowerment. Nonprofit organizations have a profound responsibility not only to those they seek to help, but to their donors, and women’s empowerment must be more than just a catch phrase in Pakistan. It requires a serious commitment by organizations that want to have a positive, long-term, and sustainable impact for women. Education is an important starting point, but the work will not end there. Given the population growth numbers, empowerment must increasingly become part of the plan to develop Pakistan. Education-focused NGOs are in a good position to begin such models of development, especially if empowerment is a stated part of their mission.