In the early 90s, an intrepid woman ventures into the back alleys of one of the slums of Karachi, to carry out research for a project- Karachi Reproductive Health Project, the first of its kind in the country. In those days the threat of HIV AIDS was looming large, and Kamyla Marvi Tapal set out to dig out more information, conducting tests and carrying out investigative work.
Thankfully, HIV AIDS did not turn out to be much of a concern, but another startling discovery was made- the majority of the population had a surprising lack of information about their physical selves. Kamyla, a young and enterprising researcher, with insatiable curiosity plunged headfirst into finding out more about this gap in information.
What she discovered was that, far from knowing about diseases like HIV AIDS and how they may be prevented or contracted, the young men and women in Karachi hardly had any information about their bodies, its various parts and functions. Almost no one knew about the functions of the private parts of the body, the onset of puberty, contraception, abortion or any basic reproductive health issues that directly impact the everyday physical health and well-being of people.
Kamyla, who herself grew up with liberal values, was puzzled at the taboo around sexual and reproductive health in Pakistan and the inherent reticence about the topic, even amongst the very privileged echelons of society with access to all kinds of information and proper healthcare. In a time when women did not venture into rural Sindh, especially not for field visits, Kamyla, made visits almost every day. Based on the information gathered, Kamyla would develop training modules specifically with the needs of the local community in mind.
The answer was before her. There was a dire need to fill in this glaring lack of information amongst the population – rural and urban. Even though the Karachi Reproductive Health Project had ended, Kamyla realized that work in this field must go on. It did not take her long to find a group of like-minded individuals, and so, in 1995, Aahung was born.
Aahung means ‘harmony’ and that is what the organization seeks to achieve- between an individual’s mind, body and spirit; and between the individual and society. When starting out, it was not obvious how very challenging the work would be. Pakistan’s socio-cultural environment has no room for talk about sexual and reproductive health and from the very early years children are taught that their private parts are associated with shame.
Aahung’s success may be attributed to a number of people, who have, over the years, worked hard, fought harder, and persisted. There have been many who started with Aahung, and grew into leaders with strategic vision as well as in leading the organization as a premier training institution which is trusted in the field of SRHR.
Dr. Sikander Sohani, a force to be reckoned with in the field of SRHR, worked on developing Aahung’s clinical side. Once the organization set its strategic vision, which was to one day have the LSBE curriculum implemented in all schools of Pakistan, he lay the groundwork for Advocacy. Fatima Haider, Aahung’s ex-Program Manager served for almost 8 years and fought passionately against discrimination of women and girls in Pakistan. With a strong background in Research, Monitoring & Evaluation, Fatima sought to emphasize the importance of engaging with Pakistani youth. Sohail Farooqui, who currently heads the Finance and Human Resource division at Aahung has brought his financial expertise and acumen to the table and helped maintain Good Practices since the last ten years.
Aisha Ijaz, who joined in 2008, plunged headfirst into education work, bringing invaluable expertise and shaping the LSBE curriculum into what it is today. Currently, the Program Manager, she oversees the entire team in the development and management of all SRHR programs and projects, steering Aahung through many a day-to-day challenge using her expert direction. Her previous experience working at an NGO in the US on eliminating intimate partner violence has also fed directly into Aahung’s work on the prevention of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) and sexual harassment.
In 2003, Sheena Hadi joined as a field-staffer. Her quest for the unknown, her passion for SRHR and her strategic vision were instantly recognizable. Within five years, she was leading the organization and had shaped it into the foremost SRHR organization in the country. In 15 short years, she has brought Pakistan on the world map through her immense hard work in helping Aahung realize its strategic vision. For its outstanding achievement in engaging a wide range of stakeholders, like school teachers, medical staff, religious scholars and parents on difficult issues, Aahung received the Government of Netherlands’ Tulip Award in 2013. The Human Rights Tulip is an annual prize awarded by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs to a human rights defender or organisation who promotes and supports human rights in innovative ways. In 2017, Sheena received the Joan Dunlop Award, conferred every year by International Women’s Health Coalition to women activists from various countries who work on women’s rights issues and promote SRHR for women and girls under challenging circumstances.
Carrying Aahung’s mission forward each day, has been nothing short of an adventure. In the early years of the organization, when a handful of spirited Aahung staff ventured into the field to gain hands-on information about the ground realities, they faced many challenges. They faced instances when they were grabbed by the collar and dragged out for spreading ‘immorality’. But, undeterred, Aahung carried on its work relentlessly and over time, many staunch opposition members became its greatest support. It has been 25 years and the work goes on.