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Saheli – “The Woman who changed my life”

By Embreen Hashmi
July 24th 2012




Women around the world still face significant obstacles when it comes to equality in society. In an increasingly interconnected global society, dialogue and discussion of these issues is a necessary step in developing solutions. Embreen Hashmi highlights the Saheli efforts in Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

As Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ fails to support even the smallest of its society groups, Community based woman’s organisations, that once strived to success struggle to survive, barley able to sustain Skelton staff and having to drastically cut projects that changed the lives of many hundreds of woman and touched thousands of powerless woman in their deprived communities, with their empowerment programmes and healing nature.

Saheli Woman’s Group is one such organisation founded and based in Basal Heath, Birmingham, an area of high un-employment and low aspiration, a multi-cultural area where the minority is the majority.  Many of the thousands of resident’s descend mainly from Pakistan/Kashmir region.

The group was founded by young woman mainly of Pakistani origin more than ten years ago, initially to improve the health and well being of the woman and young girls of Basal Heath through a social enterprise, which manifested as a small well equipped gym, within walking distance from the target market.

The group initially struggled to encourage the older female generation, to participate in the exercise projects, as many of them where un-educated and where accustom to a life based around their martial home, where they would be expected to undertake the daily domestic duties of a homemaker, so to try and extract these woman from their familiar surroundings to an unfamiliar environment and to then ask them to exercise, was something that took years to accomplish fully, eventually Saheli and the woman of the older generation found a middle ground, after overcoming obstacles to convince the men of the house, they formed small walking groups, where they would walk around their local park wearing suitable footwear, for up to 2 hours sometimes, at the same time enjoying the company of other woman of their generation. This did not just help them improve their physical health but many who had suffered some type of depression (common in their group) became mentally empowered. This programme is still going strong and is extremely popular, sustaining in some instances with its original participants.

As the organisation grew and became recognised for its excellence in the community, so did the funding which enabled the founders and board of trustees to embark on other empowering programmes, encouraging and supporting diverse woman into public life.  Ally Sultana was heading this section, she organised workshops, mentoring sessions, awareness programmes, and group courses to empower woman of all works of life.

One enormously successful programme was a ten week life coaching session, Ally Sultana said “we ran this course for woman who are ready to step into leadership roles, or to give them that support network they need to reach their true potential”, a lot of the woman who attended these sessions were already in powerful positions or needed the support to bridge the gap between them and their ultimate role, all of them wanted to give back to their community, and be in positions to empower other like minded woman. This type of project was only possible due to government funding, it was a huge success and oversubscribed so much so it had a waiting list, however due to the down turn in the economy and the lack of funding available it has not be able to be replicated. Ally Sultana, said “it has empowered woman; it has enabled them to find employment, become school governors, and realising their empowerment”.

The last segment of the Saheli Woman’s group and one that has been replicated by other Woman’s groups, due to its tremendous success is the empowerment projects through outdoor activities with the younger woman of their community, woman between 14-19 years old, young woman who would normally go to school and then stay home for the rest of the day, and that would be the end of their outdoor life. The young woman empowerment programme worked closely with local schools, who funded Saheli to empower their female students, the woman enjoyed horse riding lessons, skiing trips, rock climbing, and abseiling to name just a few of their pursuits, this inspired most of them to work harder at school and gave them the confidence to become successful in their life and empower their peers to reach for the starts. One such participant of the project was Neelam Rose, a local lady, who took part in all the projects from the tender age of 14 and she said “In our community I was not encouraged to take apart in outdoor activities, and I would not ordinarily put myself forward for things like quad biking and rock climbing, it wasn’t encouraged in my community, Saheli and groups like there’s changed my prospective on this”, Neelam Rose went on to say as she got older she had the opportunity to attend, parliamentary debates, observe hustings, meet NGO’s, “something I would never have the opportunity to do”, Neelam went on to say this experience changed her life, for the better, she said it empowered her to enter the political arena, she was more aware of who she could hold to account on local issues, she is now a 21 year old student, who won a seat on the national youth parliament, and holds many influential seats within her own community. Neelam Rose is a living example of how organisations that empower mentally and physically woman from deprived backgrounds with outstanding results.

Many thousands of Groups like Saheli that empower man and woman are struggling to survive some have had to close their doors, and all of them feel they are not being listened to and the big Society just does not work.

Qudues Zaffer a David Cameron ‘Big Society’ award winner, for his work to empower the youth, mainly young men, feels that if the funding gaps are not filled and urgently, many young people would be left destitute.

About the Author:    Embreen Hashmi  is a freelance journalist. She is working with BBC WM and worked for Asian Focus Media Group She is working with several charities and community organisations.


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