01/14/2016, 00.00
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Aasma, a Gypsy beggar "saved" by a Christian NGO, but the government needs to do more

by Kamran Chaudhry
Living in a tent with eight children and a drug-addicted husband, she enrolled in a course to learn crafts in July 2015. Now she sells her hand-made products for a small profit. Some 43,000 Gypsies live in Lahore in precarious conditions.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Aasma is a 35-year-old Gypsy (Romani) who lives in a makeshift shelter with eight children and a drug-addicted husband. She spoke at a seminar in Lahore, sharing her story with other people living in similar circumstances.

The event was organised by the AIDS Awareness Society (AAS), a Christian NGO dedicated to changing government attitudes towards poverty and the lack of basic services faced by thousands of people kept on the margins of society.

"One of my daughters,” Aasma said, “is of marriageable age but it is difficult to convince her to stay at home until she gets married because my husband keeps bringing his friends to smoke hashish.”

“Last week, I stopped a police car and complained about my situation. The agents gave my husband a warning, but he takes away my money when I get home in the evening. I have no privacy even to sleep or wash. I just want a better future for my daughter."

Aasma’s life is not unique. Another 43,000 Gypsies live in Lahore, Punjab’s largest city, half of them women. Most are day labourers, garbage collectors, sanitary workers, dancers, or beggars.

Excluded from society, they live on the outskirts of the big city, setting up their tents wherever they can, near landfills, polluted streams or wastewaters.

In July 2015, AAS launched a project to help at least 500 craftswomen and artisans improve their skills to meet market demands.

Aasma signed up right away. She wanted to learn how to make changair (straw serving trays for bread), curtains, flowerpots and hand-made jewellery. Now she sells her products at the weekly market, saving up to 2,500 rupees (US$ 23) per month. However, this is not enough. “I still have to go out begging,” she said, “because I am the only bread winner in my family."

According to Sumera Saleem, a member of the Aurat Foundation, which deals with women rights, the next step to ensure a better life for Gypsies is to provide them with identity papers. "We should start with the papers of 100 project beneficiaries.”

“Other challenges also need to be met,” she said, “like child marriage, reproductive health and illiteracy. Most girls get married between the ages of 10 and 14."

Speaking at the meeting, AAS director Hector Nihal called for action to restore Gypsy dignity. “The government should establish centres to promote their skills,” he said.

“We grew up using their products, like toys and decorations, but now this part of Punjabi culture is dying. They must be helped to overcome their inferiority complex and should be supported, like others, through Zakāt (compulsory Islamic alms-giving and religious tax)," he added.

For more on Pakistan’s Gypsy, see the following videos – Gypsies of Pakistan and Pakistani Gypsy (Khana Badosh/Pakhi Wass) – in the local language.

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