The Fearless Debater: Gaining Voice through Debates

Originally published on November 25, 2014.

Saba Hidayat speaks at her school's morning assembly.
On a bright, sunny morning during the extreme heat of a Jacobabad summer, schoolgirls attentively listen to 12-year-old Saba’s speech in the assembly area at a Government Girls’ Primary School (GGPS) called Allan Jamali, in Jacobabad District, within Pakistan’s Sindh province. Saba Hidayat, a fifth grade student who used to be afraid of public speaking, now expresses her heart in a captivating voice. Her message is about environmental pollution, and she speaks in the Sindhi Language. One of the stanzas in her speech says, “Air has changed, water has changed, changed is the rain’s drop. My beloved and beautiful world is shattering by pollution.” The audience gives her a big round of applause as she gets off the podium.

The confidence that Saba displays through her voice and stance has taken some time to develop. Three years ago, things were different. She would neither have dreamed nor dared to stand in front of an audience to express her ideas and opinions.

Until 2010, Jacobabad’s GGPS had the lowest attendance in the province, and there were hardly any extra-curricular activities at school. Girls were not encouraged to study, and the poor families could not afford to send them to school. And those girls, who managed to go to school against all odds, didn’t always have the right environment to excel.

A shy girl, but with the potential to outshine, Saba was already an avid reader. Her favorite free-time activity was to read the books that her father bought her every month out of his savings. She likes to read books that give her an edge on general knowledge. The books gave her an opportunity to expand her knowledge base, and she wanted to express her thoughts for others to hear. She realized her potential to debate when, on one occasion, she attended a debate competition as a spectator. “Girls who debated got a lot of respect, irrespective of winning or not,” she said. “Speaking their hearts out gained them appreciation. I desired the same.” To her delight, an opportunity came to polish her talent and share it with the world, when Land O’Lakes International Development organized a debate competition on World Environment Day among all girls’ schools in the district.

Saba proudly displays the trophy she won at the Debate Competition on World Environment Day.
The debate competition was part of Land O’Lakes’ three-year Pakistan Food for Education program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under this program, Land O’Lakes distributed four-liter cooking oil bottles as a monthly take-home ration to girls whose attended school at least 80% percent of the time. As oil is an expensive commodity in Pakistan, and incentivized parents to send their daughters to school, it helped dramatically increase enrollment and attendance rates in Jacobabad. Several debate competitions became part of the program, to ensure that girls utilized their time at school productively.

Saba wanted to take part in a debate competition held on World Environment Day. Wanting to be heard, she requested her teachers to let her participate in the competition.

To prepare for the event, she initially started practicing in front of a mirror at home. Then, she found an audience with her family, and began to deliver her speeches in front of her parents and later her teachers. Finally, she prepared her first-ever debate speech. Considering her determination and passion, it was a no surprise that Saba received first prize. “Everyone was praising me, my neighbors came home to congratulate my parents. My parents were proud of me. The trophy means a lot to us. This is the accolade I had been waiting for.”

Of her first win, Saba says, “My message was for a good cause to protect our environment. I won, but I can’t advocate unless I practice what I preach. Hence I started to walk the talk from home. I planted a mango tree and a rose plant to encourage the concept of growing things. Plants contribute to the environment. I also began to make sure that we always use a trashcan to dispose off our garbage.”

The debate was just the starting point for Saba. Later, with her positive attitude and passion to shine, Saba also received trophies at other debate competitions organized by Land O’Lakes on Literacy Day and Independence Day. Saba has now won the competition three times consecutively.

Girls who debated got a lot of respect, irrespective of winning or not. Speaking their hearts out gained them appreciation.

Saba Hidayat (Pakistan Food for Education Client)

Debating has helped Saba boost her confidence, and has motivated her to study hard. She is not only the winner of debates, but at the top of her class, academically. “Nothing is impossible if you are determined to do it.” Programs like Pakistan FFE have not only changed Saba’s life, but also that of thousands of other girls in the district. Each girl is now fired with the zeal to create a difference in her society. I want to see my classmates [be] as fearless as I am. I encourage my younger brothers and my friends to never be afraid of anything; [to] ask questions, explore, inquire, learn and then voice [their] ideas and opinions.”

Saba sees herself as a potential leader in the future; she is thus working hard on continuing her education. With the strong determination that she possesses, she now has her skills to one day represent her community, her city and her country in forums of greater importance. With her confidence, there is no doubt that Saba will one day soar up to touch the skies.

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