Supporting good mental health is an essential component of development

I have the honour of being both a trustee of the COSARAF Foundation as well as Treasurer of the Fahmida Begum Foundation.  In the run-up to this year’s World Mental Health Day, I have been reflecting on how important it is that the work of both charities supports the mental health needs as much as the physical health needs of communities in developing countries. 

The Fahmida Begum Foundation (FBF) is a non-profit, privately-owned welfare organisation, based in Karachi in Pakistan.  Mrs. Fahmida Begum Rashid Sheikh – my late beloved mother - is the inspirational figure behind the formation of Fahmida Begum Foundation. She was a pious and sincere lady who helped people whenever she could and taught the same to her children. Following her teachings, her children established the Foundation in Karachi to help the disadvantaged and I was given the responsibility to run its affairs – a duty I gladly accepted.

Rukhsana Sheikh Fahmida Begum Foundation

Growing up, I have always seen my parents helping the needy. Towards the end of each calendar month, I would accompany my mother after school to meet some of the widows she knew. She would have her envelopes ready with funds for their families. My mother was careful not to hurt the dignity of the women taking money from us and I was amazed at her simplicity at approaching these families in their homes. Whilst I played with their children, my mother would listen and advise the women, assuring them of her support.  Many of these women were also encouraged to earn for themselves and our mother would help set them up with employment opportunities. She would then report to my father and together they would plan how to assist these families further. 

Established in 2014, with the purpose of supporting and helping the deprived, the Fahmida Begum Foundation has come a long way and made a positive mark through a number of initiatives.  In its early days, the organization focused on the provision of shelter and food for families who couldn’t afford it, taking it further to other aspects of financial aid and educational support for the same set of families. 

The Fahmida Begum Foundation is based in Mehran Town, which is located in the Korangi Industrial Area of Karachi. It covers about 1,150 acres and has a population of around 0.2 million people.  The locality suffers from severe over-population and the majority of residents do not have access to basic civic facilities. The sewerage system in the area is on the verge of collapse and, in some areas, is almost non-existent. Only a few houses have a proper system of electricity, with most inhabitants using illegal connections to the electricity grid.  Most inhabitants do not have access to fresh water supply lines and get their water through water tankers. Only half of the local population has gas supply lines, others are dependent on gas cylinders for cooking and other purposes. The locality also lacks a household refuse system and garbage can be observed scattered around in the area. 

Due to lack of these necessities, people suffer from extreme stress and mental pressure and therefore it affects their ability to lead a normal productive life.

These people live on a day-to-day basis and, due to their extreme lifestyle, they often do not have high aspirations for themselves or even for their children. Children as young as 12 have to work to support their families; women have difficulties as they are considered a burden when married and this impacts the entire society.   

The first project I wanted to start through the Foundation was a safe place for widows, orphans and single mothers, hence the Fahmida Manzil centre was established in memory of our beloved mother. During construction, we were very lucky to meet the neighbouring residents and an abundance of street kids who had never been to school before. I was determined to provide these street kids with a green space, playground and activity centre. I wanted us to create a safer environment where these children can fulfil their dreams, whether it be at the playground or gaining knowledge under the expert supervision of our professional staff who are well versed in English and Urdu, providing Academic classes, Islamic studies and a range of activities (including toys, bicycles, story time and, of course, sports).  An average of 150 children aged 5-12 years attended daily, divided into different activity groups. Opportunities arose immediately for mothers whose children were being cared for by the Foundation; they took up employment for themselves during school hours, resulting in financial independence.   

Malnutrition was evident in all the children so a well-balanced hot meal was provided at lunchtime to all students, mothers, elderly and the public catered by a local restaurant. Later, we invested in our own kitchen so as to provide a good quality and well-balanced diet. The menu is set monthly reflecting this and on the seasonal products available. 

In my experience of working with the community of Mehran Town, I feel that the women of the area have a very difficult life and as a result suffer more from mental health-related issues. We have seen women here who appear subdued, suffer from depression and anxiety, insecurity and lack of self-esteem. Added to that, talking about one’s problems with strangers - especially about mental health-related issues - is often considered taboo. 

The women I have met in Mehran Town are focused and ambitious for the wellbeing of their children. Seeing their children suffer due to poverty and lack of opportunity affects them greatly. Each household has an average of 6-8 children and having these large families contributes to poverty but this is not a subject easily understood or sensibly tackled. Poverty means that the women also have to earn a livelihood so as to provide for the family because their husband’s income alone is not enough.  As a result of these pressures, mothers’ health – physical and mental - often deteriorates and this issue is further aggravated by the lack of appropriate facilities. 

Keeping in mind all of the above, in all of the Fahmida Begum Foundation’s initiatives we have kept women as our main recipients of assistance. Our school provides good quality education for children along with meals and we have a medical centre catering to women’s needs. In our school, we have started a teacher training programme so as to upgrade the skills of teachers who are all women from the local area. In addition to that, we are helping these teachers get higher education so that they can get better jobs.  The Fahmida Begum Foundation also plans to work in the areas of vocational training and micro enterprise to cater the needs of the local women so that they can earn a good livelihood and meet the needs of their family. 

Our work in Mehran Town is just the beginning.  Pakistan has a very young population which needs to be trained and educated as otherwise this could lead to major problems in the future.  However, this work cannot be done by us alone. We need to build sustainable programmes and work on projects with multiple organisations to enhance our support. We need to provide skills and education to the locals so that they can go out there, earn an honest living and realise their full potential in life. 

No area is as important for collaborative effort as that of mental health support provision. The Fahmida Begum Foundation provides basic facilities that alleviates some of the mental stress associated with poverty. The Foundation gives hope to people and provides facilities so that they can also see their children prosper and become contributing members of society. But we know that, as vital as our work is, it is essential that the communities we serve have better access to mental health support. We also know that it is vital that there is better awareness and understanding of mental health issues within the communities we serve. 

For these reasons, I am delighted that the COSARAF Foundation is supporting the British Asian Trust’s Mental Health Programme in Pakistan alongside its support of the Fahmida Begum Foundation.  It is so very apparent from my work with the people of Mehran Town that we need to ensure their mental wellbeing just as much as their physical needs if we are truly to deliver on our ambitious plans for their community’s development.

I applaud my brothers Haroon and Farouq Sheikh and all other family members for carrying on this legacy and pray that our next generation builds on this important work. I also want to thank the staff of FBF and COSARAF for their support. Working together, I am sure that we can support the local community in Mehran Town – and so many other communities in Pakistan and beyond – to live safe, fulfilling and positive lives, supporting their mental as much as their physical good health.

Mrs. Rukhsana Sheikh

About the author
Mrs. Rukhsana Sheikh has an impressive portfolio of charity and services to the society. An ardent speaker for women’s rights and a patron of vocational training center, she is the chief sponsor of COSARAF Foundations Grant to Fahmida Begum Foundation. Apart from philanthropist services, Mrs. Sheikh has worked as a teacher, beauty therapist, medical secretary and an investor in Caretech Community Services Ltd.