Women and girls play a central role in agriculture, but the voices of those living in villages and rural communities are often marginalized. Sameena Nazir MPS ‘10 is leading the way in Pakistan to amplify and encourage the meaningful participation of women. With a vision to promote and protect the human rights of women in Pakistan, she founded the Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA), which is now the largest network of rural women leaders in the country. We sat down with Sameena to learn more about her advocacy and leadership for women’s rights in Pakistan.
You founded and currently serve as president of Pakistan’s largest network of rural women leaders. What do you do in this role and how does your work make a positive impact on the community you serve?
As the president of a women’s rights organization, my work revolves around promotion and protection of human rights in rural areas of Pakistan. I work with government officials, schools, universities, community groups, policy makers and the media to review gaps in laws, policies and practices that result in discrimination against rural communities. I oversee institutional programs that educate communities about equal citizenship rights for men and women and equal educational opportunities for boys and girls.
Within this role I also organize small landholder women farmers to highlight their local leadership and innovations, and connect them with useful resources for sustainable livelihoods. My work has helped to create the largest network of rural women leaders in Pakistan that works to amplify the voices of marginalized farmers.
Share with us about why you created PODA.
When I returned to Pakistan after studying and living in the U.S. for several years, I went to my parents’ native village. My original goal was to build a high school for girls, but my efforts evolved quickly. After working there a few months, I realized that the school would only be successful if the villagers understand the value of educating a girl. I began organizing with the villagers for civic education, which then grew to starting many local projects for which I needed a registered organization. I created PODA with my father, village women and men.
Why did you choose to study at Cornell CALS and how did it influence your career?
Before coming to Cornell, I studied law and political science in Pakistan and worked in civil and political rights at NGOs in the U.S. I traveled to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Congo, Yemen, Morocco and Ghana for my work. Everywhere I went, women and children were most challenged by the lack of food, poor nutrition, poverty and illiteracy. Most of them lived in villages and worked in agriculture. As I began to research graduate programs, I found that Cornell University was the only school with the specialty in agriculture and rural development that I was looking for. My time here helped me tremendously to anchor my work with women farmers in Pakistan.
The pandemic has brought new challenges to development work. How did COVID-19 affect farming communities in Pakistan?
The COVID-19 lockdown affected farming communities poorly — agriculture produce could not be transported from one place to another and supplies were disrupted including access to health services. Women farmers had the double burden of feeding the families and taking care of animals and the field, and also dealing with husbands who usually do not stay at home but were locked down and did not know what to do. Violence against women and children increased in many places. Additionally, access to information and services were delayed in many rural communities.
What advice would you give to students that want to pursue a career in global development?
Live in a village for a while. And put your cell phone in your shoe box at night.
Learn more about Sameena's work at her Perspectives in International Development seminar: COVID-19 in traditional farming communities in Pakistan: Challenges and adaptations on March 17.
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