Mrs Souriya Anwar, Founding President of SOS Children’s Villages Pakistan and Prize Winner of the prestigious Jinnah Award joined us for an interview. Mrs Anwar dedicated four decades of service as a committed social worker alongside establishing Pakistan’s first SOS Children’s Village in 1975.
SOS Kinderorf International, the umbrella organisation, was founded in Austria in 1949. It is the largest child welfare organisation in the world, active within 135 countries and territories worldwide with a total of 572 Villages.
12 Districts of Pakistan
SOS Children’s Village is spread over 12 districts of Pakistan, including Quetta, Azad Jumma and Kashmir.
Mrs Anwar explains that the organization seeks to give every child in their care as normal a home as possible. The starting point is to meet every child’s basic requirements, known as SOS Village’s four basic principles: The Mother, The Brothers and Sisters, A Home and A Village.
Firstly, Mrs Anwar believes that every child needs a mother to be ultimately responsible for meeting the child’s physical and emotional needs. It can be the case that such needs can be met by a father, but in the majority of cases, and as in the case in Pakistan and South East Asia, the mother takes the majority of the responsibility when raising a child. As the years have passed since SOS’s children’s home was established in Lahore, the analysis suggests that the quality of care provided by the mother determines a great deal of the success behind the organisation’s work in Pakistan.
Her organisation has been incredibly successful, with 18 Villages mainly within urban areas. I ask “Why is this the case, is it the context of rural areas in Pakistan?” Mrs Anwar clarifies that each Village requires a great deal of external support from state agencies and NGOs which isn’t easily accessible in rural areas.
South Punjab is a perfect example where there is a great need for a Children’s homes in the future.
A common misunderstanding associated with Children’s homes is that they only take children who have lost both their biological parents. In fact, a significant proportion of the children are from divorced or widowed single-earning women, who aren’t able to take care of their child.
Due to a growing need for children’s homes in Pakistan, SOS Village piloted a project where Residential Boarding Schools were set up to accommodate children who have mothers who can’t independently meet the child’s physical, financial or emotional needs. This project provides vulnerable and disadvantaged children with a place to live, a place to be educated, and most importantly, access to their mother.
Mothers are encouraged to take their children away over the weekend Mrs Anwar comments, “this way the children don’t feel abandoned.”
This is where there is an unexpected turn in the conversation, “[SOS Villages] don’t take children in these situations. This may sound bad, but we have to explain to [women in such situations] that the mother is much more important that anything SOS Village can do.” Mrs Anwar goes on, “We don’t want to have two categories,” where some children can leave and see their mother, and some can’t. It is evident from speaking to Mrs Anwar that she is a strategic thinker who pre-empts the emotional complexity of seeking to house everyone under one roof.
Children aren’t the only ones to get a second chance at the SOS Village - so are the SOS Mothers who a recruited, trained and committed to living at the Village 24/7. SOS Mothers are single women or widows without their own families and are therefore able to commit themselves completely to the responsibility. When Sahar, Managing Partner, interviewed Asma, one of the SOS Mothers, she explained that the opportunity to be a mother allowed her to get away from her difficult personal circumstances.
“But, it’s hard to recruit. People see the job as a form of domestic work”
Mrs Anwar clarified.
From what Mrs Anwar has said, I can understand why there is social stigma attached to a single woman, even more so for an educated single women, to become an SOS Mother. It is the status quo for women to be educated, to then get married and have their own children. Women who challenge this status quo are bombarded negatively by family and friends, because being a mother to orphans is seen as a form of domestic work. This stigma is based on a deeply ingrained misconception about the role that I doubt can be removed in the foreseeable future. This is not to say this stigma shouldn’t be removed, it most certainly should be.
The reality is that a woman committing herself to caring for orphans is one of the most rewarding and purposeful ways for one to live.
Women are given a second opportunity in life when they become an SOS Mother. A chance to be a mother when they weren’t able to become one themselves. A chance to leave an abusive partner. A chance to leave their unsupportive family after a woman’s husband has passed away. A chance to leave their unsupportive family where the woman’s husband has asked for a divorce, and that woman isn’t welcomed back to her parent’s home. The reality is that there are situations like this within Pakistan.
Regardless of their background, women are accepted undergo rigorous training, following a detailed curriculum, and engage with continual professional development during their time with SOS Village. The organisation also provides literacy classes to address any language barriers between Mothers and their children. “A mother should have the self-esteem to get involved – Kids shouldn’t’ look at their mother like a maid” Mrs Anwar explains.
I remark that SOS Village doesn’t feel like an orphanage. Mrs Anwar comments that “We want the children to know that they are not alone in the world,” which is visible when you visit.
I am intrigued by Mrs Anwar’s life and career steps that brought her to this role. She shares, “I am not a career woman. I was a housewife, but I was very interested, or motivated, to do social work. There is no doubt about that.”
I think of all the potential of Pakistani women that is locked away by stigma in the guise of tradition. When just a fraction take action and engage in social work what they can achieve for Pakistan’s most disadvantaged children and women is truly remarkable.
When Mrs Anwar received her award from The Jinnah Society in 2018 she said:
“We must learn a lesson from the uncompromising morality of Quaid-e-Azam if we are to ever achieve his dream of a society based on the principles of honour, integrity, equality and social justice.”
My biggest take away from this interview is learning from an intelligent, humble and committed women that if you work with integrity, principles and a belief in achieving equality and social justice for the most disadvantaged citizens of any nation then with every step you take you will inevitably change lives. Mrs Anwar is a living testimony to this hope and belief.