Haiti Bai, a mother of three, thinks that driving a dumper is a hard task. “But I have no other option,” she said.
Resident of a remote village of Thar Desert, Bai is one of the 35 women drivers who were recently recruited by Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC). Around 70 women applied for the post of dumper truck driver, 35 of them were selected in the first phase. “The company has assured us that we will get Rs15000 monthly during training and later we will get a monthly salary of Rs25000,” said Bai.
Her husband is not educated, however, she completed her intermediate and also did a midwives course.
Like other parts of the province, Thar is also a male-dominated society, where women have limited powers in decision-making. “Locals are not happy that women are working as dumper truck drivers, but children are my priority, so I choose to work,” she said.
Parvati is also selected for the job in the first phase. “My father is a primary school teacher and he encouraged me to take up the job,” she told The News on Sunday.
Parvati that the company initially announced that women instructors will train women drivers and one of their male family members will also be given a job in the company. But the company has so far not provided jobs to the male family members of women drivers. “We thought that we shall apply and later ask the company to switch our job from dumper truck driver to any other job,” she added.
Thar is one of the most backward regions in Pakistan. In recent years, after a severe drought and deaths of children, the government has started several projects. Nongovernmental organisations are also working in different sectors. A mega project like coal-based power plant was also initiated, but locals believe that despite all these projects nothing substantial had been done for women empowerment.
During the period of severe drought, when male members left their native places along with their herds in search of food and fodder, women looked after the houses. They fetch water, bring fuel wood, look after children and guard the houses.
Hajani Lanjo is the only woman lawyer in the district and she thinks that the government and NGOs are not working seriously for women empowerment.
“There is only one technical college in Mithi that lacks basic facilities, therefore even boys are not interested in getting admission there. Girls will not even think of getting admission there,” said Lanjo.
She said though some of the local NGOs have recruited women, they are not given jobs in other sectors as it is generally assumed that women can only work as midwives or teachers. “Mostly women are given jobs near their homes and the mobility is kept limited.”
She said when the SECMC announced the jobs, a large number of women applied but later they thought that these jobs were not suitable for women, so they quit. “Most of the women who got selected as dumper truck drivers do not consider it as a permanent job. After completing the training and making some money, they plan to quit. I don’t think that coal-based power plant can bring any women empowerment in the area,” said Lanjo.
Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) is an NGO working for the past many years in Thar Desert. Its Chief Executive Officer, Allah Nawaz Samoo, said that Tharparkar is a rain-fed agrarian region, where livelihood of the people is dependent on agriculture and livestock. Most of the field work in the monsoon season is done by women. “In three four months of the season in which monsoon crops are cultivated, they get enough livelihood for the rest of the year. But in case the season is not cordial and crops are not available, they migrate to other areas. A new mining culture is now emerging and the entire region is going into transformation from agriculture to mining culture,” said Samoo. “Now women need skill development in the mining sector.”
Tanveer Arif, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), an NGO working in Thar Desert since 1988 to protect environment and combat desertification and drought, said that employing women of Thar Desert as dumper truck drivers will not bring any empowerment.
“Most of the women are good in agriculture, livestock, handicrafts and shop keeping. These women are comfortable with these traditional trades. Personally, I am not against women going into other technical and heavy trades like machine operators or drivers, but these should not be symbolic or cosmetic, but serious efforts,” said Arif.
Talking about the role of coal power companies working in Tharparkar in empowering the local women, Arif said though there is no long-term programme for women, “these companies have created some space for women in operating heavy vehicles like dumpers, which is a good gesture”.
However, Mohsin Babar, Manager Media and Communications SECMC, claims the company is working for women empowerment. “We are going an extra mile to include women in our workforce by conducting community meetings to reach out to the female population, convincing them and their families to let women work. We are providing women training where they lack the skills and ensuring they have extra facilities. We are also designing a programme to make them successful entrepreneurs in different fields of small scale handicrafts to livestock business,” said Babar.
“In Thar, women aren’t seeking employment opportunities,” he said, adding that as the first company working at such a large scale in Tharparkar, “our target is to set the right precedent. Employing even a few women would set an example for other women in the community. It would show the women, the communities and the employers that there is no job that a woman cannot perform.”
In recent years, many NGOs have started micro financing giving money to local women on interest saying they will have to either buy a goat to raise a herd or start other works like embroideries.
Talking about the role of micro financing programme in empowering the women, Tanveer Arif said there are mixed opinions about this programme. “Since overall local economy is poor and baseline poverty is high, therefore micro finance is not very effective in bringing poverty down and empowering women. Traditions, culture, lack of infrastructure and lack of access to markets are some big hurdles.”
Explaining the role of women in the economy of Tharparkar, Tanveer Arif said women carry a lot of workload like working in fields, taking care of livestock, taking care of children and collecting firewood etc. “In my opinion, they share almost 60 per cent of workload in agriculture and livestock alone.”
A report by World Food Programme issued in 2015 said people in Tharparkar district are facing drought, acute malnutrition, unemployment, limited access to safe drinking water and livelihood challenges.
Whenever the region is hit by drought, women are the first who suffer from malnutrition. According to Unicef, women population in Thar Desert is suffering from chronic malnutrition. Some experts argue that when women are malnourished, how can they work to get empowerment. It is pertinent to note that malnutrition, morbidity and imbalanced social norms are major causes of deprivation among women.
However, SECMC claims that it has initiated a mother-child health facility to support local woman. “Without basic health services, women remain physically vulnerable. Empowerment of women requires them to be physically and mentally healthy. We consider them a part and parcel of the process where Thar coal mining and power projects are progressing and outcome of which would improve the economic fabric of Thar,” said Babar.
Cultural barriers and lack of supportive infrastructure is also causing problems in recruiting the local women. “In every community in Tharparkar, the literacy rate and education level of women is lower than that of men. That means two things for us when we try to recruit women; first, that it is more difficult to find educated women for different jobs, and second that women leaving their homes and interacting with non-natives for any purpose are discouraged — even getting education,” said Babar.
Mustafa Ahmed Khan, a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, who recently conducted a detailed research in Tharparkar looking at the effects of the coal project in Islamkot, terms local women’s employment as dumper truck drivers a ‘gimmick’. “Other than some cosmetic things like training women as truck drivers, the project has done nothing to empower women.” He said in fact the presence of strange men in the Singharo village located in Block II has led to more restrictions on women’s movement.