Maria Partab is not just a social activist; she is pretty much a social activism warrior. Long-time resident of village Haji Muhammd Shafi Nazamani, Ladho Koli, District Tando Muhammad Khan, Sindh.We meet her in a neighbouring village called Veerjo Goth in Digh Mori. She has come here to convene a meeting with the local village organisation (VO), where her own experience with the various social uplift and poverty alleviation projects, specifically for women, is being shared with comrades who all belong to the Hindu religious minority. The focus today is on WISE – Water, Immunisation, Sanitation and Education. WISE is component of the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening and Support (SUCCESS) Programme, funded by the EU and implemented by the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP) in Tando Muhammad Khan. Maria starts the proceedings of the meeting with a prayer in Sanskrit, a soulful reminder of not just her faith, but also her commitment to addressing all local issues as a patriotic Sindhi and Pakistani woman. She is locally known as a passionate spokesperson for a multitude of causes, ranging from women’s economic and social uplift and empowerment to sanitation, clean water, recycling and general public cleanliness, personal hygiene, education for all, to inoculation of young children through immunisation. Anyone with a lesser zeal for activism would soon get lost chasing the challenges each cause represents, but not Maria. While she is always smiling and her brown eyes always twinkle, this woman is a bundle of boundless energy that keeps up the morale of the women of not just her own village but also the women of many neighbouring villages. The women, who have come together as part of various village organisations (VO) and community organisation under the Local Support Organisation (LSO) formed by the women themselves, are Maria’s friends – an extensive network of resourceful women who have overcome shyness and social odds to make this truly a successful endeavour. “I cannot recall my life before the SUCCESS representatives came to our village to help us set up our COs and VOs, even though I have a very sharp memory,” she recalls, her voice laced with humour. “I suppose one always wants to forget a dark era in one’s life or pretend it did not exist.” The dark era that Maria so jovially refers to, was a time when these villages and fellow residents were surviving in a state of ennui, living from day to day, with little social improvement in their lives, surroundings and home. Being located in a remote area within the Sindh province, many of the provincial level reforms that were promised by politicians did not reach the most deserving. However, with NRSP outreach and SUCCESS, they were able to see a chance for change. With the support of SUCCESS, they have been able to leave their days of carelessness behind. These brave women have earned their mirth through their own zeal for life, and Maria leads the charge “How bad were things? Let me count the ways,” she says, in response to a question about how things are better now. “We did not know the value of our lives. It was one mundane day after another. We used to throw our trash out on the streets where our children played in garbage, dirt and faeces – both human and animal – all day long. We did not care about personal hygiene either for ourselves, or for our children which made us fall prey to sickness all the time. It was unbelievable how easy it was for us to become ill and lose our savings on quack’s medicine. But with SUCCESS and NRSP’s WISE programme, we saw how we have missed out on the most basic and obvious connection between our messiness and our illnesses.” Maria goes on to discuss updates about immunisation calendar for children, their educational achievements and issues with the attendees of the meeting. She also asks after a few pregnant women in the village, making sure they know when to get a proper medical check-up and get inoculated as per their medical needs. “With the WISE component of our project, we were able to pinpoint the need for hygiene and cleanliness to avoid sickness. We cleaned our homes and the streets. We started collecting all our trash and either bury it in a properly dug landfill or burn it outside of our village at night. We do that now and life is so much better. We do not fall sick that often, and there are less flies and mosquitoes.” The lack of flies and mosquitoes is also important since now their food does not get cross contamination because of flies, and there’s a lesser chance of malaria or even dengue. As for the disposal of trash, Maria’s trips to Karachi and Nathia Galli on a retreat via SUCCESS for prominent CO and VO workers have opened her eyes to the possibility of recycling. “I saw gift bags made out of old newspapers and coasters to put under hot dishes made out of tightly coiled strips of used tetra packs,” she marvels. “I never knew we could do this! People are using trash to make money so why can’t we?” The idea of recycling, or upcycling, is new to Maria and her colleagues, but they are excited to pursue the possibilities. They also want to involve the children who study under the educational component of the programme in a Sabaq Centre in coming up with creative ways to use salvageable trash items. The Sabaq Centre has been a boon for out of school children that previously couldn’t go to a school on account of it being too far. The ones most missing out were the girl children. Villagers, while perceptive to most WISE aspects, were unwilling to send girls for fear of personal danger to the government school that was located at a distance. With a Sabaq Centre in their own community, the girls and some boys, a total of 40 in number, can learn at their own pace, closer to home. This has also removed any excuse that the parents previously had to not sending their children to school. Maria is proud of the children, and their parents, who have shown initiative. Lastly, Maria discusses the importance of saving water and shares details about how they conserve the available water. Several hand pumps have been installed in the villages as part of a general village improvement scheme and the villagers were taught by the NRSP team about testing water to know if it was good enough to consume by humans. “We did not know there were ‘invisible forces’ in the water that could make us sick,” Maria says, as her comrades shake their head in agreement. “No boiling, no analysis, we drank whatever we could find. After our WISE training, we get water in our water pumps tested. Based on the results, we painted the water pumps that had water fit for human consumption green, and the others, for general usage, were painted red. It is a simple distinction, but one that saves us from unnecessary illness.” Another thing that saves the residents of the village from unnecessary, and lifelong, illness is immunisation on time. Maria recounts how people thought immunisation shots rendered male children impotent and causes fevers and diarrhoea in girls. With training and understanding, they now realise that immunization drops and injections save them from crippling and life-threatening ailments such as polio, measles, pox, typhoid and more. “I myself drank polio drops to show my fellow women that they do not cause harm! They needed to stop hiding their children from well-meaning medical immunisation teams who come like angels to our doorsteps!” Maria concludes the extensive session with another prayer and gathers with her colleagues for a photo. She encourages them to laugh with all their hearts, like lionesses. When a friend playfully tells her lionesses roar, Maria quips that after a good day’s work and achievement, there is no need to roar – a laugh would suffice. There is not a single person who disagrees. These brave women have earned their mirth through their own zeal for life, and Maria leads the charge. The writer is a Lahore based writer and conservationist. She writes about culture, environmental issues and women’s rights Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2019.