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Fashionable dreams in Balochistan

* Army-run BITE providing free education, monthly stipend of Rs 2,000 to children

QUETTA: Mehtab Kanwal embroiders a women’s tunic, dreaming of a prosperous future as a fashion designer with a boutique – albeit in one of the most turbulent and forgotten parts of Pakistan.

Kanwal’s dream just may come true thanks to a free design course at a new institute where officers gave journalists a guided tour to showcase development projects undertaken by the military.

“I belong to a lower middle-class family and want to be a help to my parents, who strongly support women’s empowerment,” said 16-year-old Kanwal. “I’ll open my own boutique and a school to pass on the skill to other girls in my city and province,” she said.

The army founded the Balochistan Institute of Technical Education (BITE) three years ago in Quetta as part of a pilot programme to turn raw youth into skilled labour in the resource-rich province.

Although a drop in the ocean of massive challenges facing Balochistan’s eight million people, the institute offers an opportunity for teenagers from low-income families to learn skills that can earn them a decent livelihood.

Balochistan has some of the most remote communities in the country, miserable social indicators and a deeply traditional society where many women, particularly in the countryside, are rarely allowed to leave the home.

BITE opened its doors in 2007 and teaches more than 500 students, including 165 girls, subjects from beauty to sewing and knitting, mechanics and auto electronics.

Education: Tuition is free and a monthly incentive of Rs 2,000 rupees encourages attendance among poorer students, says head Brigadier Jamil Sarwar.

“I feel lucky to have got permission from my parents to attend the course because we are still living in an environment where girls are not allowed to go out of their homes,” Kanwal said.

For decades, people have felt excluded or marginalised by the central government.

But the civilian government that took over from Musharraf in 2008 says it is working to implement sweeping reforms – criticised by Baloch nationalists as being too little too late.

It has promised constitutional, administrative, political and economic reforms in a bid to grant the province more independence and wealth creation. afp

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