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From software engineer to social entrepreneur

By Amna Nawaz, NBC News

ATTOCK, Pakistan – There aren’t a lot of positive headlines coming out of Pakistan these days.

Between the bombings, drone attacks, and tensions with the U.S., it can be difficult to remember there’s much more to this country than its fight against terrorism – that there are inspired, optimistic, and determined people on the ground working hard to build better lives for the nation’s most vulnerable. 

Saba Gul is one of those people.         

Bags for Bliss is a social enterprise that empowers adolescent girls in Pakistan through education and entrepeuership. NBC's Amna Nawaz reports on the young Pakistani woman who quit her job in the United States and moved back home to create literacy and livliehood.

After earning, not one, but two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and landing a comfortable job as a software engineer in Minneapolis, the 28-year-old Pakistani native took an unusual step. She quit her job, and moved back home.

What led her to make that leap was the decision to commit full-time to an effort she launched while still at M.I.T. – a program, called "Bags for Bliss," [ www.bagsforbliss.org] designed to keep in school Pakistani girls who would otherwise drop out because of financial constraints. 

"I felt so lucky to be at one of the best schools in the U.S. without much effort, other than studying hard and doing well," said Saba. "And girls back home go through so much just to get a very, very basic education."

The girls she first set out to help with her program are part of the Afghan Turkmen refugee population in Pakistan. Tens of thousands crossed the border after the Soviet War, but have never been granted citizenship status or the economic stability that comes with it. Many eke out a living from their traditional practice of carpet weaving – grueling and time-intensive work that yields meager returns.

As soon as they are old enough to weave carpets – often, as young as 5 or 6 years old – children are pulled out of school to work on the loom for 14 or 15 hours a day alongside the rest of the family. In this insular, impoverished community, enormous wooden looms occupy entire rooms inside modest homes. Families tell stories of waking at 5:00 a.m. to begin work, breaking for tea and one meal a day, then continuing to weave until they can no longer see at night.

Even if school is free to attend here, families simply cannot afford to forego the wages they would lose during the hours their children are gone.

So Saba designed a program designed to fill that wage gap and keep girls in school – girls, she said, who will later grow up to be more likely to send their own children to school.  

Sabu Gal,  the founder of Bags for Bliss,  discusses her commitment to giving girls in Pakistan "the opportunity to change their lives."  

Even though "Bags for Bliss" was only launched in 2009, the program is already seeing results. Nearly 40 girls are now enrolled and dozens more are interested in joining. The program was even recognized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a State Department function as an "extraordinary" effort.

Still, Saba’s not resting on her laurels.

"I don’t think we can say we’re making a big dent in this social problem yet," she said. "But I think we can say that we are slowly changing the lives of these girls, even if it’s just keeping them in school. That’s the first step."

To learn more, make a donation, or sponsor a student, visit www.bagsforbliss.org.