Student initiative empowers local women to improve health

Every year universities around the world that are working alongside their communities nominate themselves for the MacJannet Prize, awarded by the Talloires Network of Tufts University, United States, in recognition of exceptional student community engagement initiatives.

This year I was one of the judges on the selection committee and that experience has strengthened my motivation for collaborative community work.

Looking through the international university programme nominees for the award, I feel the deepest sense of awe and contentment. Young people worldwide are busy not only gearing up for challenging careers; they are also aware of their surroundings and doing their part to make them better.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In 2016 I was interviewed by the Talloires Network for the work I had been doing in a squatter settlement. I went to a private medical school – Ziauddin University, in Karachi, Pakistan – and just behind it lies a big squatter settlement called Gulshan-e-Sikanderabad.

Home to 130,000 residents from all ethnicities of Pakistan, including thousands of Afghan refugees, this is the place where the poorest of the poor live, who moved to the metropolis in the hope of a better life.

The average number of children per house is seven and the families earn on average less than US$100 a month. Normal healthcare is unaffordable so these families end up receiving medical attention from cheaper places offering medical care that is way below standard.

Working with a student-run organisation called the KaraHealth Welfare Organisation, I started going to the area in my first year.

My first experience was participating in health awareness sessions on infectious diseases. Even sessions on handwashing and basic hygiene were very impactful for the residents of Sikanderabad as most of them are uneducated and are unaware of basic tips to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

From health to education

I was the president of the same society during my fourth year and I decided to increase the number of health sessions given by university students.

Most of the infectious diseases are easily preventable and our whole focus was on equipping locals with enough knowledge to prevent the spread of infections and decrease their disease burden.

Many siblings are born without a significant gap between them and hence grow up without a proper childhood. Each week we would go with blank papers and colours and ask them to let their imaginations go wild and draw and paint anything they wanted.

Polio is a terrible virus that leaves the host paralysed from the waist down. We partnered with local government health agencies to administer polio vaccines to local children who were under five years of age.

We conducted regular fundraisers so that locals could seek healthcare at proper tertiary hospitals. For needy patients, we would cover costs of entire surgical procedures, investigations and medicines.

Dental school students also volunteered regularly to conduct oral health screening camps and provided referrals to those requiring further treatment.

The Talloires Network awarded us second prize with a US$5,000 cash prize. It was decided that the best use of the money would be to educate older uneducated women in the area as this would empower future generations too.

Most women in the area never went to school in their childhood for various reasons. Some belonged to families who believed only religious education was appropriate and others sent only their boys to schools.

We set up five different schools in each block of the settlement, which ran simultaneously for two hours every day. Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, along with mathematics, were taught at the schools.

Five women who had at least finished their high school education were identified from the area as teachers at the schools. University students were not selected as teachers as, unfortunately, even if they were from the same city, educated women from different backgrounds are still seen as aliens by locals. They could relate to teachers from their own area.

University students ensured the smooth running of schools and would go every week to deliver health awareness sessions. In order to financially empower the women of the area, the university has set up two programmes to teach them skills. One teacher is hired to teach the women sewing and another teacher is hired to impart basic computer knowledge.

The value of education

Currently the fourth session of the schools is underway. The programme is now funded by donors. More than 150 women, ranging from 15 to 71 years old, have now graduated.

They could not hold pencils before they started. Now they can read newspapers, type messages on phones, read street signs and bus numbers and most importantly read expiry dates on medicine bottles.

They have realised the value of education and are sending their own children to school and helping them with their homework.

When I talk to them at weekly sessions, they have become more health conscious and, importantly, have started taking control of their lives. Women come to me with questions regarding contraceptives and vaccination schedules for their children.

The women who have graduated have gone on to teach their sisters and other family members in their homes.

With the assistance of Sara Schairer of, which aims to inspire compassionate actions and attitudes, I am conducting sessions on compassion and gratitude. Many of the women suffer from anxiety and depression, which is not addressed by healthcare professionals.

The sessions teach them the skills they need so as not to stress about things that are not in their control, to appreciate what they have and work towards doing something about the things that are in their control.

A teacher from ‘Teach for Pakistan’ has also volunteered to do a Skype session with the local women on how parents can give feedback to children at home for academic and non-academic tasks. Fitness trainers from an organisation called 42 Day Challenge have given free fitness training to the women.

I am regularly approached regarding medical bills for surgeries, childbirth and medicines and my friends and I fundraise online and transfer the money to the women and provide receipts to donors.

Currently I am developing a programme with Indiana University in the United States. Medical students will develop a curriculum for the health awareness sessions containing the latest guidelines. In the future they intend to do video conferences with the women of Sikanderabad, delivering sessions which would be translated by local students there.

Indiana University students are also interested in fundraising to cover their healthcare bills. If this programme takes off, I will approach other universities to get on board and focus attention on other squatter settlements.

This has all been insanely rewarding for me and the community’s willingness to change and step out of age-old traditions is a constant motivation for me and the other university students. Radical change is only visible after persistent small tweaks to daily life. We hope to give back and empower more community members in the surrounding settlements.

Zainab Faiza is a graduate of Ziauddin University, Karachi, Pakistan. After finishing medical school, she has been involved in helping the people of Sikanderabad in Pakistan. She blogs about her experiences on and she can be reached at