ISLAMKOT: As dawn breaks in Mansingh Bheel village, Asiya Bheel wakes up to quickly help prepare breakfast with her mother before waking up her younger sisters and brothers and getting ready for school herself. Her responsibilities as the eldest sister among eight siblings don’t just end there. When everyone is ready, she will also be driving them to school while also picking up her friends on the way.
A student of class nine now, Asiya always wanted to study to become a doctor one day. She was the first female student from her village to attend the Thar Foundation School in Islamkot, when the school started there in 2017.
Thar Foundation is the corporate social responsibility wing of the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC). Though the school’s aim was to serve the people of Thar Block II and its adjoining areas, it fell at a distance from Asiya’s home. Still Asiya would travel the distance on foot to reach the school with her friends, something the girl’s father was not too happy about. Meanwhile, out of concern for their safety, her friends in the village were disallowed to accompany her to school by their fathers. Then following in their footsteps Asiya’s father also told her to forget about school and try to study at home.
“But studying at home is not like going to school where you have teachers to explain lessons,” said Asiya. “I got after my father to let me go to school. And finally he relented. But he also hired a rickshaw to drop off and pick me from school. But that rickshaw was falling apart. It often broke down making me miss school,” the girl shares.
Resilient, determined and tough, they easily drive tri-wheelers and heavy vehicles in Thar Coal fields
“Then my father heard of a training programme for rickshaw drivers being started by the Thar Foundation in collaboration with the Human Development Foundation. My father enrolled in it and he also asked me if I was interested. Of course I was. I learned how to ride a motorcycle and how to drive a rickshaw. Later, after obtaining a licence we procured our own Qingqi rickshaw in a scheme. We convinced my friends’ families to let them attend school. Now I drive my sisters and friends to and from school in that rickshaw after which my father takes over from me to use it to earn from it,” Asiya completes her story of empowerment.
This of course is not the only women empowerment example coming out of Islamkot. The women dumper truck drivers have also earned much fame and respect for their work of transporting coal from the mines to the coal power plant.
They are still there doing phenomenal work driving the gigantic trucks with 14 gears. Mining engineer Sana Mohammad Afzal, who works as officer production with SECMC told Dawn that when they started the Thar Coal project, their aim was not just helping the energy sector in Pakistan but also provide equal opportunities to the men and women of the area.
“We witnessed that the women of this area were resilient, determined and tough in their day-to-day tasks. But they were not literate. Therefore, we took the initiative for our flagship programme of training female dumper truck drivers.
“Our outreach teams went door-to-door to approach females who were 18 and over in age for this. When we saw that they were also willing to join, we set up a proper driving school for them where we educated and trained them. Initially over 50 women were taken on in the programme. Now they play a huge role in supplying coal to the plant. They get proper salaries to work eight-hour shifts. Since they are women, we also take care to give them the morning shift so that they can also manage their households. We don’t discriminate between the male and female workers. Rather we offer an enabling environment to both,” the officer production explained.
Fayaz Hussain, a mining engineer, said that he finds the women drivers far more responsible than men. “They also take special care of their dumper trucks and always keep them clean,” he said.
Nasrat, a 32-year-old female dumper truck driver told Dawn that she had separated from her husband due to financial issues at home and was living with her parents when she heard about the training programme. “Now after working here for three years, I’m making over Rs35,000 a month along with getting a handsome annual bonus. I’m back with my husband. My son is attending school, I also have a one-year-old baby girl, who will also go to school eventually,” she smiled.
“It’s a very good job. We don’t need to work continuously for eight hours. There is a lunch break and different tea breaks, too.”
Asked if any of their husbands had any issues with their working so hard, Ramoo, another dumper truck driver, said that her husband also works with SECMC but on one of their tree plantation projects. “He is quite okay with my job. I also feel happy that all of our six children are going to school and eating well. Life is good. My husband recently bought himself a motorcycle for which he was able to save up,” she said.
Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2022