"The women peasants of Sindh have awakened - and now they will be the landladies; the owners of the land"
- Slogan sung by women at events organized by Oxfam's partner, Participatory Development Initiatives [PDI])
They came by bus and by truck. Some, like Hajiani, even walked part of the way barefoot, for more than an hour. Hundreds of women were gathered at a packed centre in Gora Bari town, Thatta district, in Pakistan's Sindh province. They were here to hand in their applications to formally claim state land which was being reallocated to some of the province's poorest women, in a landmark land distribution programme aimed at helping some of the poorest and most marginalised people. Many would hear the same day if they'd been successful.
Hajiani, who doesn't know her age, shyly held out her thumb, which was now covered in blue ink, to show that she had registered her papers, and was waiting to see if she would be among those formally awarded land for the first time.
"We have nothing. We've got by from fishing; but stocks are reduced these days. It is hard to make a good livelihood," she told me. "I have come today to seek land. If we get our own land, we can feed our family and earn more money. Sometimes, we have enough to eat; but often it's not enough."
Pakistan did not carry out essential land reforms soon after independence. As a result, critics say, Pakistan's agricultural and rural sectors are characterised by highly feudal relationships which keep many in abject poverty, including bonded labour. It's estimated that more than 60% of farmers in Sindh are landless, while vast tracts of farmland are still owned by small wealthy elites who wield huge political and social influence.
Sindh's land distribution programme is a bold step forward. For the first time in Pakistan as well as South Asia, state land is being specifically distributed to landless women peasants, in an attempt to begin reducing poverty and bringing about much wider social changes in rural areas.
"It's very important for me to get land"
When I visited the packed kutchari, or open hearing, it was bustling with activity. Many women and their families had traveled in vans organised by Participatory Development Initiatives (PDI), a local partner supported by Oxfam, to ensure as many deserving women as possible had the chance to register for land. PDI staff were also on hand to help those unable to read and write to fill out land application forms; and for weeks earlier had carried out awareness campaigns about the land distribution programme, including using local radio broadcasts.
"It's very important for me to get land," said mother of four, Janat, who currently farms on four acres of land belonging to her landlord. Her family only receive a quarter of the crops they cultivate - the landlord takes the rest.
"We want land of our own to pass on to our children; to have our own house and not live with threats or the fear of having to move. A landlord can ask us to leave at any time," she explained.
Another lady, Sakina, who traveled with her six-year-old son, chipped in. "Security is a priority for us. If we own land, we will have a safe house; no corrupt people can snatch our crops from us... There are always threats from influential people who can take the land from us."
Around 43,000 acres of state-owned land has already been distributed in the first phase of the programme, which had prioritised women landless peasants. But civic groups like PDI had pointed out a number of serious flaws in the scheme. Much of the land allocated was either waterlogged or not level, proved unsuitable for cultivation because it was affected by salinity, or had multiple ownership claims - which led to lengthy legal battles. PDI has been helping many women with legal support to fight their cases, and face the challenges made by richer, more powerful landowners.
Ironing out the flaws
The second phase of distribution is now solely targeting landless women. It hopes to iron out many of the flaws in the original process, as well as offering women longer-term packages of agricultural support including providing seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and technical help.
Faisal Ahmed Uqaili, co-ordinator of Sindh government's Land Distribution Programme, acknowledges that about 50% of the original land allocated had proved problematic. But he says that lessons have been learnt and around 80% of cases have been settled. Officials were also under strict orders to ensure greater transparency, he says, to stop nepotism and corruption. There had been cases reported of officials trying to sell application papers to the women, or grant land to people favoured by influential political leaders.
"You need to say the glass is half full instead of half-empty," Faisal told me. "When you meet these success stories, women are now making a livelihood for their husbands and families. There is a marked difference. If change is coming in the life of the people for this allotted land and for a fairly large percentage of people, then it's the start of success."
Mother-of-seven Beebul Hassan's face lights up as she holds up a slip of paper with a signature showing that she's been successful in her application. She is now the proud owner of four acres of land.
"I still don't believe I am a winner here," she said. "I can't help making plans about how I will now use my land." She says she wants to start growing wheat, chillies, tomatoes and vegetables; and for the very first time, a family home on land that she now can call her own.