Anjum Malik graduated from the MA in Sustainable Cultural Heritage program in 2018. After graduation she became Special Assistant to Chairman of Pakistan Higher Education Commission and then Assistant Editor for government-led initiative called 'Geoculture' which established a platform for cultural and social issues in Pakistan. In 2020 she became Communications Officer at the NGO Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN).  Here she writes about the rewards and challenges of her new position:

One of the most enduring lessons I learned during my Masters in Sustainable Cultural Heritage at The American University of Rome was the sheer diversity of meaning for the term ‘heritage.’ My favorite was that heritage could be anything that people wanted to save for future generations. This simple yet profound definition is the guiding light for my current work as the SUCCESS Programme Communications Officer at the Rural Support Programmes Network (RSPN).

The RSPN is Pakistan’s largest community development network comprising nine Rural Support Programmes (RSPs) working throughout Pakistan with a combined rural outreach of over 54 million people. The RSPN’s approach focuses on community driven development through social mobilization, a participatory approach where rural communities are mobilized into community institutions strengthened by economic incentives. This approach is based on the belief that disadvantaged communities have the innate potential to help themselves if provided with guidance, resources, and the right environment.

My project, called the Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support Programme or SUCCESS, is Pakistan’s largest women-led rural community development initiative. A six-year multi-stakeholder project funded by the European Union, SUCCESS aims to achieve female empowerment and poverty reduction at a household level. The history and environmental context of interior Sindh is a harsh one where rural people have been trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, suppression, and illiteracy. Basic human rights like education and healthcare become unimaginable privileges in the context of the Sindhi rural landscape where clean water access cannot be guaranteed. The situation is particularly severe towards women. Sindh’s traditional community culture is dominantly a patriarchal one: women and girls have little social status and decision-making power in their lives and households. Working and traveling independently without the permission and presence of a male family member is inconceivable. Speaking with an unknown male can come with disastrous repercussions.

I joined the SUCCESS partnership in March 2020 when the project had entered its mature phase, having started in 2015. With the approaching departure of the project donor and implementers next year, the project is now being critically assessed for long-term sustainability. Will the women community leaders and the women-led community institutions fostered under SUCCESS be able to continue their development work independently once the EU and RSPN pull out?  

Our data indicates yes! Results show that 70% of our women-led community institutions are set to continue functioning in the post-project phase. Despite the overwhelming odds, our rural women partners have broken free of mental and physical shackles to change the course of their lives forever. Not only have they gained an inner confidence and dignity from their development work but have also organized together as united and intelligent leaders to advocate for their communities at a local government level with the support of their men. This was effectively demonstrated during the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan when rural women leaders mobilized previous training, resources, and linkages to take self-initiative in protecting their communities and collaborating with the Pakistan Federal Government’s National Command and Operating Center (NCOC) to tackle the pandemic.

In my opinion, the greatest achievement of our rural women partners lies in rising above the long-held societal convention of female submission and choosing to fight for a new cultural heritage that incorporates female emancipation and women economic empowerment. My work, at this stage of the programme, comprises the creation and implementation of a post-project sustainability plan of action for the SUCCESS communications department. I am currently spearheading multiple collaborative projects focused on in-house capacity building and outreach expansion strategies. Our aim is to broadcast the SUCCESS impact on a global platform where our rural women partners take center stage in directly voicing their opinions and achievements to the world. Since the start of my time at RSPN, SUCCESS has been featured at a Facebook live discussion called “Life under COVID: Rural Perspectives of Pakistan” hosted by iO - The Space, Islamabad. Our project was chosen as a case study on the Cultural Economics Panel at the virtual 2020 Just Future International Conference.

We submitted our first in-house made video for an international film making contest organized by Pakistan Dawn and German Deutsche Welle called “It Happens Only in Pakistan.” SUCCESS also commenced an in-house special weekly newsletter at the start of the coronavirus pandemic called “Communities Combating COVID-19: Succeeding where it Counts” with six issues. Our COVID-19 newsletter allowed us to upskill to a fully-fledged magazine called “What’s Next for SUCCESS” which will focus on post-covid project developments such as internal capacity building and upskilling.

There is great room for growth on all sides. Not only do I have the blessing of working in a dynamic and supportive team but also the distinction of contributing towards the creation and sustainability of a cultural heritage that is far more powerful and enduring than any tangible entity: stimulating positive change by an organic growth in people’s mindsets and actions. It is indeed a privilege.”

Anjum Malik, MA Sustainable Cultural Heritage, 2018.