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'I Wanted to Write My Name'

By Laura Sheahen
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Eighteen-year-old Farzana has grown up with limited opportunities to prove herself. Her family fled war in Afghanistan when she was small—"I remember planes and bombs," she says—and the traditions of her Pashtun culture required her to stay inside her family home in their new neighborhood in Pakistan. School was out of reach for both financial and cultural reasons.

But Farzana is a quick learner, and so when a Catholic Relief Services self-help group for women offered her the chance to learn to read, she was eager to join. "I couldn't even hold a pen, but I wanted to write my name," she says.

CRS Pakistan staffers approached community elders and family heads to make sure they understood the program. They talked to Farzana's father and got his approval. With such community buy-in, women of many ages join the groups, which are held in a private community center. There they learn to read, write, and do basic math. "I wanted to learn more about math so I could do calculations and understand phone numbers," recalls Farzana.

The women also learn to sew and embroider different types of clothes, skills that help them earn their own money. "I have already started doing hand embroidery—I've done a shawl and two dresses," Farzana says.

The women in Farzana's group are proud of what they've accomplished: they now receive clothing orders from stores in the Pakistani city of Lahore. "Even if I only earn one rupee [a little over a penny], I give it to my father to help buy rice for our family," says Farzana.

Farzana learned to read and write well in less than eight months—so well that she is now teaching her younger brothers and sister. Watch this 50-second video to learn more about her success.

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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