By: Tehmina Qureshi
Karachi: When we talk about enabling girls and young women to make choices about their sexual and reproductive health, it is imperative that the importance of their rights is completely understood first.
“If we ensure their right to information and sexual health guidance, it will automatically lead to greater empowerment. They cannot possibly make choices for themselves if they don’t know their rights,” said Dr Nafis Sadik, advisor to the United Nations’ secretary general and special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia.
“Another often neglected yet highly important aspect is that merely educating girls does not necessarily lead to higher empowerment levels,” she said, “In our society, and many others as well, it is the men who make choices for young girls and women. Hence, their education is equally important. Gender equality is a cross-cutting issue.”
She was speaking on Friday at the launch of ‘Awareness to Action (A2A)’, the second phase of Rutgers-WPF’s Girl Empowerment Project, being implemented in collaboration with SAFWCO and HANDS.
Dr Sadik, who is also the former head of the UN Population Fund, said that the sexual behaviour of boys and men is accepted and even applauded, but for girls, the issue is hushed up on grounds of promiscuity or sexual waywardness. “This reluctance over giving women the right to information about their reproductive and sexual is what needs to be fought,” she said.
“Along with investment in women’s health and education, the current situation also calls for their inclusion in policy making. That is the only way we can come up with gender sensitive policies that will accelerate the integration of marginalised groups in mainstream society.”
In her address, Dr Yasmeen Qazi, the senior country advisor for A2A’s donor, The David & Lucile Packard Foundation (welfare wing of Hewlett-Packard), highlighted the importance of education for young girls.
Citing various studies, she said that about two-thirds of the population in Pakistan was younger than 13 years, thus, targeting them with awareness and advocacy programmes will definitely benefit society in the long run.
She said that it is an internationally accepted fact that for each academic year a young girl spends in school, her earning capacity increases by 15 to 20 percent and her possible time of marriage is delayed by six to eight months. “However, for young girls in Pakistan, the low rate of enrolment in secondary classes remains a weak link that contributes greatly towards the prevalence of early marriages and consequent problems,” she said.
Dr Qazi added that girls who attended school for even a few years made better choices regarding their personal and family’s health than those who receive no formal education. “There are a number of common denominators among the root causes of this lack of awareness and choice young girls have about their reproductive and sexual health,” she said, “We need to provide girls opportunities that enable and promote personal empowerment.”
Speaking about A2A, Qadeer Baig, the country representative for Rutgers-WPF, said that the project is based around the ‘reverse education’ strategy. “Young girls will be selected for training and mentorship, before being entrusted with the responsibility of spreading awareness regarding the issue within their families and extended social circles,” he said.
Hence, through the ‘peer-to-peer intervention’ plan, the project aims reach out to 65,000 girls in the Sanghar and Malir districts, with 650 ‘Kirans’ selected and equipped with leadership and communication skills.
A similar three-year project had been implemented by Rutgers-WPF and SAFWCO in Sanghar district from 2009 to 2013, under which 63 female teachers of 21 district schools had been provided extensive training and guidance.