The Inspiring Baloch Icon – Ms. Khalida Brohi
A special thanks to Ms. Sadia Ali and Ms. Tayyaba Iftekhar for this exclusive feature.
Khalida Brohi has been inspiring hundreds of individuals, working relentlessly for the empowerment of women in Pakistan for many years. She has won many awards and accolades both nationally and internationally for her projects, and is proving to be a source of pride for her country. Youth Correspondent recently sat down with this young entrepreneur for a little tête-à-tête where she explains her Sughar Women Program, how she managed to break through the obstacles in her way and what other plans she has for the future.
First of all congratulations on the success of your initiation of the Sughar Women Program representing the rural women. How did you come up with this idea?
I always believe this whole idea was created by Allah. It was his plan long before I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur because my life, circumstances, stories around me and every single freedom I was given tactically led me to what I am doing today and I feel like there is nothing else I would rather be doing.
Can you briefly tell us about the journey of this program so far and how it began?
Sughar Women Program began after a failure. At the age of 16, I chose to launch a campaign against the custom of honor killing, it soon became a success (as I thought) hundreds of people joined from Pakistan, thousands from around the world through an online platform and media was always on our side to shout against the customs, against the laws and against the government. Within two years we failed really badly because of our weak plan, the strong opposition from the tribal communities and not involving rural women in our campaign.
By the end of 2008 when the failure has broken our hearts, and ended every hope about my dreams, we suddenly started to realize our mistake and planned about an idea which would avoid the past mistakes. This time we went back to the communities launching Sughar Women Program, and using the very unique strategy of promoting positive traditions to end negative traditions we did really well
The inspiration that led to the birth of this idea?
I belong to a small community in Balochistan, where I have seen beautiful traditions flourish inside strong tribal structures. But also in the middle of all that I have seen women and girls at times be victimized in the name of negative customs. Living among all that I was fortunate to be the girl in my community who attained her education from Karachi, my parents in total favor of my freedom chose a really different life for me which other girls in my community could never even dream about. The freedom and opportunities in my life led me to see what a big difference there is in living a life where you are free to decide, and on the other hand living a life with the fear of strict traditions and being deprived of education, knowledge and self appreciation thus I wanted every other girl and women in my community to be able to enjoy the freedom that I did.
Tell us about the Sughar Women Program, what it really is and any subsidiary projects that stem from this program.
Sughar, which means a skilled and confident woman, is a program of Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI) and it has one core mission: “to create a society where women are not killed for honor but are honored and given equal status” and we know that this is only possible by unleashing that amazing potential in women, and make them really see their own true worth. Sughar employs a strategy where we promote beautiful traditions to end negative traditions like honor killings, exchange marriages and child marriages. We do that by various means and one of which is to create a center in each village we work in, where women come every day for a 6 month course on value adding the traditional embroidery, getting basic education, enterprise trainings and life skills trainings. The products that these women create are sold in big markets to bring them income which not only increases their income but the awareness and education that they receive everyday empowers them socially to look at themselves in a respectable way.
Being a young entrepreneur, were there any hurdles or complications that you had to face while initiating and setting up for this idea?
I don’t think if anyone ever comes out clean and safe when they choose to go against the tide, there are always forces active to stop you or to stand as short term barriers on your way. Mine was the same case, As much as it helped that I belonged to a local tribe in the communities of Baluchistan, it also became my challenge as I was in fact choosing to stand against certain customs and traditions which I have been brought up in. People certainly didn’t take it as good news in the beginning.
What would you say sets apart your program and subsidiary brands when we compare them to other NGOs working for women rights as well?
There is a lot of good work going on; there is so much hope that sometimes it overwhelms me with optimism. But then, there is less impact, because a lot is yet to do on the ground in the areas we keep hearing about on tv and newspapers. Sughar is something that deals with the local realities, working locally to create a global impact. We focus only and only on how to make rural and tribal communities more active to let THEM be the ones who choose change for themselves instead of someone else imposing that to them.
What were your best achievements of your career that you would classify as being a key to your success?
I see many steps in my career as the major achievements leading us to today: first, the ability to start something without thinking about failure. Second, failing big time and accepting our mistakes. Third, Trying again with innovative and unique ideas. Fourth, succeeding in a really great way and striving to scale up! Also among all this one of the other major things that always makes me feel proud is that I have been able to create a team of people who are passionate, persistent, unreasonable and active every single day of their life to meet the goals of Sughar!
Could you tell us an inspiring story of a woman helped by your program, and how Sughar Women Program made a great deal of difference in her life?
There are many stories that come across with each second step ahead and I believe that is what keeps us persistent because we keep seeing hope, we share most of the stories through our facebook page as well:
Has the program contributed to the reduction of Honor killing of women in the rural areas? If yes, how did you manage this successful accomplishment?
The change is small and slow but it is visible. We select villages on the basis of their prevalent customs, and the possibilities of women facing the risk of being victims to that. Through our work we have seen that the women we work with start seeing themselves in a very new perception, with an increased status and when they bring home income and life skills she is looked at with respect and worth. The slow change becomes visible to the eye when some days women tell us how their husbands have appreciated their work, when a woman tells us she was allowed to go to the market herself and when a woman tell us that when they were ill their husband left all that he was doing to get her to a doctor.
As an entrepreneur managing various products of your program, what was the most difficult decision you had to make?
There hasn’t been just one decision; there has been a series of difficult decisions that I ended up making during the past 7 years. But then nothing can compare to the first decision of course. The decision to be disapproved by my whole community for years, to be doing something different and as different is always perceived of as wrong. I chose to be wrong, the decision which made me feel uncomfortable for thousands of times in my life and in fact which changed my whole life forever, and it is the decision to refuse to accept injustice and make my contribution in making things slightly better for women in Pakistan.
Tell us the funniest story of your career.
It’s when I and my team tried to be fashionable. Fashion and style are something I never found myself roaming close to, and even my team who comes from various backgrounds and small villages themselves are naïve to that part of the world. But when it came to exploring the potential markets during our decision to launch Pakistan’s first ever rural women brand called Sughar, we went out of our way to be fashionable. The alien looking dresses started to look beautiful and every second trend was one of our favorites. I could never forget the moment I was looking at my team in Sindh who were talking about Pakistan’s biggest brands, our ideal customers and our new product line as if they have been in the Fashion Industry for years to show such an air of experience!
Tell us about a time when you felt your career as a burden on yourself?
When you love what you do and do what you love, there is nothing to feel burdened about. I am really fortunate to be among this group.
Tell us about Sughar fashion brand.
Sughar Fashion Brand is Pakistan’s first ever rural women brand. We launched it because of the crucial need for rural women in Pakistan to have the status they deserve in the fashion industry of Pakistan. In year 2011 after scaling our work from Balochistan to Sindh we found out that our potential customers in this province have a really diverse sense of style, and all around us there is talk about trends, fashion, styles and brands. It took us more than a year to figure everything out, to learn about the fads, and also to realize that there are enormous number of brands out there but none of that is exactly owned by the rural/tribal women and hence in February 2012, we Launched Pakistan’s first ever rural women brand via a Fashion Show, here is a short video to it.
How was the overall response of people living in rural Pakistan to this brand?
The whole concept was very new for them. The realization for women to have dived into a whole new world where products they create serve as fashionable accessories and will be bought on the basis of uniqueness, design, quality and everything else became a highlight. The brand also served as a way to increase their income which was highly approved of. While another of our main aims behind launching the Sughar brand was to take out the perception from women themselves that people should purchase their products because that brings income to their house but because their products are beautiful and people would rather be lucky to have them! The pride and dignity in the eyes of women we work with is very prevalent after the brand launch and the brand is now their main treasure that they own!
What are the future prospects of your program and various other projects associated with and initiated by you?
We are always looking for innovative, crazy and unreasonable ideas to make things better and better at Sughar, and I believe Sughar is now at a stage where we have seen things working, change happens and actions settling down in familiarity. This is the opportunity for us now to start becoming better and looking for ways to be more strategic. Our coming plan is to initiate our partnership with some Retail organizations like Fashion ComPassion of London, Yoomna’s of Chicago, AK Kerani of Evanston.IL and Online Retail platform called Desi Store, who are eager to work with Sughar and get the rural women products in foreign markets. We are also scaling up in the desert areas of Pakistan where we are working with minority groups with same structure of Sughar, and next plans are to take Sughar to some areas in Punjab soon!
How has your accomplishments and success helped your personality grow on a personal and professional level?
I have learnt to be more humble and let the world and great people around me tell me what I still have yet to do and learn.
Can you briefly tell us about your journey in building the career and current standing that you have now in the market?
I truly believe on the words of Paulo Coelho that “When you really want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I wasn’t much aware, and I am still am not about what I am doing and what the consequences would be but I only let the RIGHT thing lead me to certain actions and starting from merely writing poems against the custom of honor killings from when I was 16, later being part of campaigns, launching my own campaign against honor killings, failing, starting again as an entrepreneur, later becoming a speaker with a US based organization called Girls Fight Back and a speaker with Al Gore on his climate Reality Project and things kept moving farther and farther until now where thanks to Allah after many years I see my whole external family in full approval of the work that I do and several female cousins starting to make some amazing decisions for their life. It’s been quite a journey which I definitely did not do alone.
Young and yet so successful, how do you manage your personal and professional life together?
It’s certainly not easy to manage work and life, and I am no superhero. What I have learnt is to prioritize and keep myself aware about exactly where I am heading to. I do a lot of self-reflection as well which helps me keep the balance but that doesn’t mean that I have sailed smooth, there have been times when I have sacrificed and given up on some things and made decisions against my wish because I know that I chose to be an entrepreneur for a BIG reason. I am eager to share a post from the moments which always make me think:
What can we expect from Sughar Women Program and Khalida Brohi in the future?
Our biggest plan for the future is to reach out to 1 million women in the next 10 years. Do expect that from us and make us accountable as much as you can.
Being a youth icon, especially for young females, what would you want to convey to the youth of Pakistan?
There is so much advice, a lot of suggestions and recommendations; I don’t think my message is all that necessary. I would rather want all the youngsters to sit down and really listen to THEMSELVES about what do THEY want because I know each one of is blessed with a conscious which needs listening to and the more we pretend not to listen to it, the more it becomes silent.
Lastly, how was your experience with Youth Correspondent?
Just wonderful! Thank you for giving Sughar a chance to directly to connect with youngsters through the Youth Correspondent, its a true pleasure for us!