Aahung at Women Deliver 2019


I work on reproductive health for an organization called Aahung in Pakistan. For over 20 years now, we have been developing and advocating around comprehensive sexuality education, or, as it is called here, Life Skills Education (LSE).

In 2018, the Sindh province in Pakistan became the first to introduce LSE content. And Balochistan is working on doing the same soon. This blog discusses the work it entailed over the past decade to get to this point in what is a conservative society. I describe the barriers we have come across along the way – some of which still remain for other provinces yet to be convinced on the issue.

Back in 1995, we were the first organization that not only worked exclusively on sexual and reproductive health in the country, but also with young people on the issue. We developed jargon round it in the local language – making sure there was accurate and appropriate terminology. We built teaching tools on LSE, and we now work to build the capacity of teachers in schools, training them on our content.

We make sure to create an enabling environment in the schools, involving school management as well as teachers and parents in the change. And finally, we carry out ongoing monitoring and evaluation of how the content is being received, and then after a couple of years, if all has been well, we believe the programme to be sustainable and the school runs it themselves.

We are only 25 people based in Karachi so scaling up requires a change of the system from the inside. This has led us to work with the education departments within provincial governments.

It took almost ten years from the first moment we formally started working with the Sindh department for it to come to the point when it was willing to integrate some of the content into their textbooks for grade 6-8. The change in will was prompted by prominent rape case of a six year-old girl, Zainab Ansari in Jan 2018. It shook the country and left the government wanting to do something meaningful. We’d already been working with the department for almost a decade and were well placed to accelerate the process.

Then, in May 2018, Balochistan approached us to do the same. If Sindh can do it, so can we, I think was the thought. But there is not much movement in the other provinces. At least not yet.

Provincially the concerns can be different. Sindh is the most progressive of the provinces in the country and has the least religious backlash. It’s more of a bureaucratic holdup – a lot of red tape, which can hold things up.

In the Punjab, however, progress is the slowest in terms of approaching LSE, and yet it is far ahead other states on other issues. It has the most amount of money and the best infrastructure, for the instance, but the religious party has the most authority in that province who are very cautious of the right way.

In Balochistan, we expected the religious and cultural hurdles to be the same as Punjab, but their desire to actually do something good has won over. The bureaucrats and different officials we connect with are very committed. They approached us rather than the other way around as they were keen for change. There is a bit of a cultural hurdle there, and it’s mostly a tribal culture, but because they’re so dedicated their interest and accountability is a lot more than might otherwise be expected.

We don’t look at addressing religious organisations directly. We work with the provincial departments as a secular organization, approaching the issue from a rights’ based approach.

We rely upon evidence – we create models through our own programmes that could then be taken on by governments, showing that they have worked in urban semi-urban and rural areas. In the Sindh province, for instance, we then started a pilot in 24 schools in the province, to reassure them that it wouldn’t start any form of backlash – to build that evidence base for them to roll it out into their textbooks. And it worked. Parents received it very positively. And teachers. And this convinced Sindh to roll it out across the province.

People don’t have a concept of human rights, which is very eye opening. In the context as we’ve seen it, it legitimizes our work. Our training, for instance, looks at focusing on the individual self. The family and the community are so important here in Pakistan, but we need to take it back to the individual, which could be anyone and how they want freedom and tolerance and knowledge. And this is how a rights-based approach works. It often comes down to what people’s perception of what LSE is. And once you break that down and really walk them through it, as the new paper by the GEM Report and UNESCO out this week does, over time people do understand its value.