Veeru Kohli: the ultimate outsider

Gender, Governance, Methodology, Rights

When Veeru Kohli stood as independent candidate in Hyderabad’s provincial elections on 11  May 2013 she made history. Jacky Repila explains how Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice programme played a part in her journey from bonded labourer to election candidate.

She is poor. Making the asset declaration required of candidates, Kohli listed just two beds, five mattresses, cooking pots and a bank account with life savings of 2,800 rupees, wages for labourers in Karachi are around 500 rupees a day.

She’s a member of a minority group – Hindus represent less than 6 per cent of the country’s total population. The vision of tolerance and inclusion of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has sadly been eroded as we can see from the 500 Pakistani Hindus who recently fled to India to escape discrimination.

Pakistan ranks 134th out of 135 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index.

She’s uneducated and does not boast the political connections or patronage of most politicians. In fact she has ruffled feudal feathers, escaping captivity from her former landlord and fighting in the courts for the release of other bonded labourers.

And then of course, she’s a woman.  Only 3 per cent of all candidates contesting the general seats for the National Assembly were women.

And yet, in spite of the inevitable establishment backlash seeking to devalue her credentials, on 11  May 2013, 6,000 people voted for her.

As a former bonded labourer in her mid-fifties with 20 grandchildren, Kohli’s journey to election hopeful is the stuff of legend. And Oxfam’s Raising Her Voice programme is proud to have played a small part in her success.

Speaking with one voice for women’s rights

Kohli is one of the 1,500 women’s leaders who have been supported by the Aurat Foundation and Oxfam through training, exchange visits, information sharing and mentoring as part of the RHV programme, seeking to support women’s political participation and leadership in 17 countries worldwide.

‘No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you’.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, speaking in 1944.

Pakistan can lay claim to the Muslim world’s first ever woman prime minister and elected Speaker of a National Assembly but there is a glaring disconnect between constitutional rights and customary or Islamic laws. Sensitive to these contradictions, the RHV programme chose to work with an inner circle of well-connected ‘home grown’ women leaders.

Where well meaning but nonetheless external interventions might have failed, the women leaders who are from and for the communities they live and work in, have put aside party political, faith and ethnic differences to join together and speak with one voice for women’s rights.

Reaching out to less well educated, less confident and poorer women in their communities, 187,500 Pakistani women have benefited from the programme. With total funding of just £445,257 over five years this also represents real value for DFID’s money.

The Women’s Leaders Groups (WLG) provided safety and strength in numbers, enhancing the potential to form alliances and gain influence which has brought political, economic and social benefits:

  • In Hafizabad (a district of Punjab Province) over half the members of the zakat – Islamic relief – committees are from WLGs.
  • Sindh district level committees – such as education – now have 2 to 4  women from WLGs.
  • Nationally, 116,000 women obtained national identity cards with the help of WLGs.
  • In Attack (a district of Punjab Province) WLG negotiations with panchayats brought an end to honour killings.
  • In parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, some Awami National Party workers had been stopping women from voting in the 2013 general elections until the WLG raised it with the party leadership who took action against the offenders.

Reinforcing the grasssroots activism of the WLGs, has been the indefatigable advocacy and campaigning of Oxfam’s partner, the Aurat Foundation (AF).  Media savvy, an influential player within Pakistani civil society and internationally well connected, AF is a skilful navigator of Pakistan’s political undercurrents.

AF strives to influence the structures – laws, political processes, traditional and institutional centres of power – that disenfranchise Pakistan’s women and curtail fulfilment of the country’s true potential.

Today we launch The Politics of Our Lives: The Raising Her Voice in Pakistan Experience, a report documenting the learning from RHV’s work with AF in Pakistan.  It makes essential reading for those wishing to support programmes seeking to shift the balance of power between the sexes in countries where getting it wrong can have very serious consequences.

A ‘road map’ it isn’t, that would be too prescriptive, but it is a valuable resource for governance practitioners. And beyond this, documents the remarkable achievements, conviction and stamina of the women leaders and their advocates, who, like Veeru Kohli, have pushed the boundaries ‘against all odds’.

As Veeru said: “Initially I was not fully prepared, but then I thought, this could be done only by me, so I went on all the way…”

Veeru Kohli on the campaign trail

Posted by on Vimeo.



Author: Jacky Repila
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.