What is the Swat Relief Intiative and how is it nurturing the personal power of women in Swat Valley?
The Swat Relief Initiative was started in the beautiful Swat Valley in the Himalayas of Pakistan. In the early 20th century this region boasted a modern government and society. In 1922, the ruler, Miangul Abdul Wadood started the first girls’ school in the Swat Valley. Progress continued into 1947 even after Partition, but when Swat united with Pakistan in 1969, corruption within the bureaucracy ushered in the era of decline in Swat.
In 2008, the Taliban further mired the region into a quicksand of chaos. Instead of the “golden era” the group promised a gruesome era of public beatings, beheadings and other forms of violence. Not only were the girls’ schools shut down, but they were destroyed. The Taliban’s Reign of Terror was halted in 2009 by the Pakistani Army when they wrested power back. However, the already fragile infrastructure was further decimated and two million people fled the area.
At that time, Zebu and Arshad Jilani started Swat Valley Initiative (SRI). Zebu JilIani is the granddaughter of the last ruler of Swat. She remembers a compassionate, generous leader who worked for the good of the people. She and the other volunteers work to see a return to government that serves the needs of the people. I spoke with Ms. Jilani recently and we discussed the importance of increasing the power of individuals to provide for themselves and advocate for their own rights. Disheartened by the corruption within charity groups in Pakistan, she sought to run her organization differently. She and her husband pay for operating costs so 100% of donations go directly to the people. She would like SRI to be “a model for how charity should be done.”
When she started SRI, the immediate need was aiding the refugees with basic necessities, such as healthcare. Today SRI has projects that target rebuilding infrastructure and communities. Specific projects focus on: health, education, sustainability, economic development, and community organizing.
As part of economic development, Vocational Training Centers (VTC) for women were established to teach women trades to support themselves and their families. Assistance is also available for women who have suffered domestic abuse. Further opportunities for training are available to women in the form of basic computer training. Two hundred women graduate each year from the three VTC’s in SWAT.
SRI has provided vast opportunities for the education of girls in the form of scholarships and mentors. Elementary schooling is also provided to boys and girls to prevent child labor and child marriage. Schools that have previously been abandoned have been revitalized. SRI has introduced formal education to the remotest areas of the region where it did not exist before. The schools are open for both boys and girls.
For seven years SWAT Relief Initiative’s mission has worked tirelessly to rebuild infrastructure. By empowering traditionally disenfranchised groups like women and children SRI hopes to build a stronger community and reclaim the area’s legacy of modernity and compassionate governance.