It is fascinating to see in how many ways environment can be interpreted. Zar Aslam and her NGO, The Environment Protection Fund (TEPF), has made a journey from the physical to social and cultural environments. Upon her return to the country a few years ago, Aslam found the degradation of the physical environment to be tragic and painful and decided to set about bringing change. She did not just want to ‘clean up’ physically; she wanted to educate the future generations of this country on the whys and hows of keeping this country clean and green. Thus started her journey of working with schools, school children, administrative arms of the government, individuals, communities and corporates to educate the children through experience on why and how to reverse the trend of degradation of Pakistan’s environment.

Starting from clean up projects and teaching children through community work experience about, for instance, the difference between biodegradable and non biodegradable refuse, planting, nurturing, composting, solar energy etc., TEPF began to integrate social elements of the environment for the children.

TEPF brings together children of different faiths to work together on community service projects, be it growing vegetables, painting and cleaning their schools, separating garbage or doing cookouts and eating together. Here, they learn tolerance, which perhaps they are not being taught in their schools or homes. Working, playing, eating, watching movies and discussing issues together, they begin to see each other not as the other, but the same as themselves, and respecting their differences.

The latest foray of the TEPF is in gender rights and women’s empowerment, which seeks to make the environment more conducive for women to become more mobile, safer and better able to make a living for themselves. Last month the TEPF piloted the Pink Rickshaw Scheme with the rickshaws intended to be driven by women for women passengers only, where the driver and passenger both feel secure. Surprisingly, the response from the Pakistani public has been positive, with people being excited about wanting to help this groundbreaking new initiative. The phones don’t stop ringing at TEPF with women’s phone calls wanting to apply for the rickshaws. A neighbourhood rickshaw driver just cannot wait and has started to give his wife driving lessons in anticipation.

But the best, most startling side of the story is the funding side. None of the big donors have offered anything yet. But women from all over the world have begun to contribute to this effort from their personal sources. Imagine this. This crowd sourcing initiative has women donating from ten dollars to three thousand dollars. The next stunner comes in the shape of Kalpna, a first generation Indian-American woman who became the first sponsor of the first rickshaw – a cross-border, cross-cultural, cross-religious reach out to women of Pakistan! For human empathy and generosity, there are no borders it seems, physical or otherwise. And women contributors are growing.

I did read one immature critique of the project in the The News recently, where the author was lamenting segregation inherent to the project. So ridiculous was the argument, that it is hard to critique it.

Segregation suggests some force, whereby men and women are required to remain separate by dictates of morality or authority etc. This project, however, provisions a mode of transportation, of livelihood, of independence in a safe environment to women who are willing to take a step forward. It also offers women passengers the peace of mind to be travelling with a woman driver who will not sexually harass them or drive off with them into the sunset – a reality in our current public transport setup. This is all about empowerment in a safer environment, not about forcing choices.

And the best part is the enthusiasm it has been greeted with by and large, with people across the country and the world supporting the idea, the media propagating and lauding the scheme, and with primarily women funding it. Men have been enthusiastic, in word but not so much in deed yet. One local businessman has sponsored a rickshaw so far, but the lag has been striking. One needs to see a larger proportion of local businesses supporting the initiative. This is the fishing net that we will hand to the women of this country.