“Hiba” spoke to Mrs. Zartaj Subhani of “Sina – Health, Education and Welfare Trust”, which focuses upon health, education, and social uplift in Pakistan. Zartaj Subhani, along with her colleague, Iffat, is also running a project under the banner of Sina that empowers women patients who visit the medical facilities running under Sina.
- What was the inspiration behind this brainchild and who was in your primary team?
Twelve years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I should start counselling women. I took her advice, and started the counselling. Initially, I was doing it on my own; however, after a while, I realized that most of the issues faced by women were due to a lack of finances. I felt that instead of just giving them handouts, we needed to empower them. A lot of these women could not go out and work due to the stigma in their communities and/or not having caregivers to look after their children. I spread the word around that I needed some volunteers to come and teach these women a skill and to help sell the products that they make. Along came Iffat eleven years ago and, Alhumdulillah, there has been no looking back.
- What initial challenges did you face and how were they overcome?
We didn’t have any large funds to buy fabric, threads, etc., to invest in this venture. Also, these women were not professional seamstresses, so they did tend to mess up outfits, which we in turn could not sell. That was a drain on our meager funds until, Alhumdulillah, out of the blue, a friend’s husband donated a sizable chunk to really get this venture going. This way, we could afford to build up stock, pay these women much more than the market rate and even give them bonuses for the Eids.
- Ten years down the road, do you feel the difficulties in empowering these women have reduced or multiplied?
It has definitely helped in empowering these few women that we have taken on. But it is a drop in the ocean, as we can take on about fifteen women only! Since we just go in once a week and it is just Iffat doing the designing, explaining the stuff to be done, etc., and trying to sell the produce (we don’t have an outlet – selling is done through word-of-mouth from her place), we can’t take on more women. Also, a lot of the women can’t sew and/or embroider, so we need other ladies to come forward to teach them some crafts and then market them. There are too many women and not enough work! It is an uphill task, especially with the cost of living spiraling and their husbands/sons being laid off from factories or not being able to find jobs.
- Would you like to share one story of success that gave your team immense gratification for the dedicated work you are performing?
Yes, Alhumdulillah! We had this lady come in, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Her husband did not contribute to their expenses – he would only come into their lives every now and then and was physically abusive. She used to work in a factory but, due to her poor health, could not continue.
Her landlady had heard about our clinic and brought her in. She has three children, who were really young at that time, and she had to see to their upbringing, too. Some kind soul was paying for their education, but she did not have enough resources for her day to day living, etc. We took her on and, Alhumdulillah, her daughter finished her matriculation and is now studying privately for her B.Comm and working in our clinic as a paramedic.
Our Trust tries to take on the educated youth from within the community, train them and then place them in our clinics around the city. They are much sought after, as their training involves a wide array of subjects, including communication skills, administration of drips, dressing, checking the vitals, etc. Since we have developed a system of patient records, computerized medical cards and a protocol, which the paramedic has to fill out with each assessment whenever a patient comes in, there is a check and balance, which allows the quality control officer to assess the paramedics and doctors – thus, there is accountability.
Anyway, this lady is now doing the sewing in the neighbourhood and has many clients, while her daughter has now taken on her work with us. Her two younger sons are doing well in school, and in the summer holidays, we enlisted them for summer classes in computers and English, as they were keen to learn. We also put her daughter through similar classes and, Masha’Allah, she plays a large part in helping her mum sustain the family.
- If you had to advise others to take up a similar project, what would you have to say?
The key to any social work endeavour is consistency, perseverance and patience. There are a lot of well-meaning ladies, who want to help but give up after a while, either because they get bored or don’t think they are making a difference. We have to remember that if we all do something, no matter how small, to help the community, it causes ripples. If we are doing it for Allah (swt), then no deed is small – He sees our efforts and intention and that is of utmost importance. This keeps us in a positive mode and gives us the dedication to carry on with the cause, Insha’Allah. We have to keep in mind that we have to help make them independent and wean them from us gradually, so that they can take on whatever comes their way with a positive attitude.
- Can your team train other affluent and skilled ladies to adopt your model and make a similar difference elsewhere?
We (“The Mind Health Group”) already did a Counselling Skills workshop for twenty affluent ladies. It was a ten-day workshop with doctors from The Agha Khan University and Hospital, social workers, psychologists, a psychiatrist and volunteers, who were actively involved with the project. On completion, we placed them at our various clinics around the city. Unfortunately, most of them dropped out after a few months due to their various commitments. If a bunch of women can get together, arrange for a venue and give us enough notice, I am sure, Insha’Allah, we can work out something. If there are other, similar/same crafts/skills that they can teach, we can try to arrange for them to use our clinics for getting the access to the women of the community, Insha’Allah.
- Do you have trained staff to replace the existing team if required?
Alhumdulillah, there are a lot of girls, who are studying psychology, and a lot of women, who know about fashion and have their in-house design studios. It isn’t rocket science; anyone can take over, provided they are dedicated, have empathy and want to help change the world.
- Having worked with this stratum of society, what is your observation regarding the one critical need of these women?
I can’t pinpoint just one critical need. The closest I can come up with is that they need some sort of education – not necessarily the formal type, but more like Tarbiyah, where they can learn life skills and how to apply them.
After spending many years with them, I have found that one of the main problems (apart from the finances, which is the major one) is that they don’t think out of the box. They have very little motivation to change their lives and get out of the rut they are in. They attribute whatever walls come up in their way, no matter how big or small, as their fate without putting up a fight or finding a solution. This resigned acceptance of their fate makes them complacent and then mentally lethargic. I try to help them come up with solutions for the betterment of their lives, motivate them and get them attached to Allah (swt), but that is done only after they have a comfort level with you and trust you.
If you wish to share something additional, please, feel free to do so.
When I go to the clinic every Friday, I really feel that I am so much better off than the majority, and, Alhumdulillah, this brings about a great feeling of Shukr for all that I have been blessed with. I have no reason to complain – ever! Insha’Allah.