It may be unknown to most people in Pakistan, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including the erstwhile tribal areas now merged with the province, hosts the country’s highest number of Sikhs.
These families have been residing here since before Partition and never left their homeland despite calls to do so in 1947 and the years since.
After the security situation deteriorated in the tribal areas in the last decade or so, Sikh natives of Kurram, Khyber and Orakzai tribal districts migrated to Peshawar, which already hosts a sizeable number of local Sikhs.
At the moment, more than 7,000 Sikh men, women and children reside in Peshawar’s Mohallah Jogan Shah, as per some estimates.
Around two years ago, in a bid to make Sikh women of the area financially independent and productive members of the community, the government announced to establish a vocational training center in the locality.
However, to-date, the Social Welfare Department which was tasked to establish the center has failed to complete the project.
Local Sikh community leader Gorpal Singh stated that the KP Commission on the Status of Women had made them the promise of opening the center after which the Social Welfare Department took over and vowed to implement the plan.
He claimed that the community, overjoyed by the decision, had even provided a building to be used as the center. Singh added that though the government provided some basic raw material to be used for sewing, stitching work, the major contribution of machines and operational infrastructure was not provided and the locals still lie in wait. Relevant government officials could not be reached for comment about the project.
When the plan was initially launched, Mansha Devi Kaur was given the responsibility of training and organising the community women. Devi, a community leader, had herself undergone training at a similar center in the city’s Union Council #17. As the local Sikh population also adheres to the region’s strict social code practiced by Pakhtuns, they did not prefer for their women to travel far away from the community on a daily basis and thus prefer that the center should be built in their locality.
Kaur said tribal women have an equal right to become a constructive and skilled member of Pakistani society. “A single vocational center for the community was probably not enough but at least it would have been the first step to women achieving equal status in our society,” she emphasised.
Kaur implored the government to operationalise the idle center as being in their own neighbourhood, it will be easily accessible by scores of needy women.
Journalist Manmeet Kaur, who has become a leading voice for minorities, and especially Sikhs’ rights, shared that the recent tragic road accident involving Sikh pilgrims near Nankana Sahib resulted in the deaths of 20 people of their community. She added that the majority of those killed were young men, some of whom left behind pregnant wives.
Manmeet shared that she met four such women and wondered how reassured they would be today if they had been taking vocational classes at the center had it been established two years ago, rather than feeling financially vulnerable at this tragic turn in life and seeking assistance from others.