by Zubeida Mustafa
Empowerment is opening up new spaces for personal development for women in Pakistan. As opportunities for education come within their reach women are learning how to upgrade their lives. This has brought the realization that a big family may not be a blessing, and can actually handicap women. This is a big leap from where women were a few years ago, when motherhood was widely regarded as a status symbol. The more male children women had the more respect they could command. Sons brought a sense of security as they consolidated a woman’s position in the household and ensured that a second wife would not displace her.
Take the case of Zahoora who lives in Kumb, a small town in rural Sindh. She is 28 years old and has three children who were born in quick succession. For Zahoora her two daughters and a son means her family is complete. She loves her children and enjoys taking care of them. Since she is educated and her husband is supportive, she also works and adds to the family income. Zahoora is a teacher in the neighborhood school.
A few months ago Zahoora became anxious. Her experience told her that without contraception, soon another baby would be on its way. Zahoora did not want any more children for she knew that four would make her life difficult and she would have to leave her job. She had also been ill after the birth of her second child.
Zahoora typifies what demographers describe as the phenomenon of women not wanting more children but not being contraceptive users. In Pakistan 25 percent of married women - six million women - fall in this category.
Zahoora learned that a team from the Reproductive Health through Girls’ Education (RHGE) of the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) would be talking to women about family planning in Kumb. It sounded interesting and Zahoora’s curiosity was aroused. She went to the meeting and returned home with new ideas in her head. They made a lot of sense and she felt inclined to agree with what had been discussed.
Once Zahoora was convinced about contraception and family planning, she had the confidence to talk to her husband, Rahib Ali. He was a man of commonsense and understood her perspective. The next day Zahoora went to the population clinic in Kumb with Ali; and after some counseling, they made their choice of the contraceptive with which they felt most comfortable. They joined the 30 percent of couples in the country who use contraceptives.
NGOs like the IRC have discovered that it pays more to combine reproductive health education with other social activities. Though there is a lot of awareness about family planning today, Moomal Soomro, the project officer of RHGE and a trained population counselor, points out no program can succeed without counseling and mobilization. Regrettably that has generally not been available. The population growth rate that had declined to 1.5 percent is now said to be a higher rate of 2.05 percent.
Soomro speaks of the changes she has seen in the three years since the RHGE program was launched. IRC began twelve years ago as a project for female education, poverty alleviation, improved maternal health, and environmental sustainability. The ultimate aim was to bring about sustained behavioral change in marginalized communities. But it was soon realized that no change was possible without the empowerment of women whose role was typically subservient in a patriarchal society.
To encourage behavioral change, “We then knew that we had to adopt a holistic and integrated strategy,” Soomro says. That is how the component of reproductive health was added to female education at the secondary level. The subjects covered are sex related topics of interest to adolescents - hygiene, marriage, human rights, and sexually transmitted diseases. While the pedagogy is participatory and discussion-based, it is discreet as being too candid would not have gone well with Pakistan’s conservative society.
The IRC has established a network of its school's alumnae with other female members of the community. Dubbed the Young Women’s Professional Network, they conduct frequent sessions with women. “It was at one of these sessions that Zahoora was introduced to us,” Soomro explains.
The network serves as an institution where women interact with one another, enter into business partnerships, run projects, share ideas, and provide support to one another. Information and services on reproductive health are a part of the agenda.
Five members of the network have offered their homes to set up what are called “safe spaces.” These homes are provided with books, a white board, registers, and some stationery. Awareness raising meetings are held on a regular basis and women are trained to plan and organize the meetings, keep records, draw up agendas, and so on. Having established linkages with other community groups they are expected to become focal points for women and exert a strong influence on the community.
Sadiqa Salahuddin, the managing director of IRC, can already see the changes that are emerging. “Previously many girls were married off as early as eight years of age. The marriage age has gone up by several years. Many girls who have been betrothed continue to live with their parents who appreciate the support they get from their girls.”
There is no measure to gauge the confidence the young women gain as they take control of their lives. And while their confidence is palpable, it is also clear that no family planning program can succeed without an improvement in the status of women. By addressing all facets of life, the RHGE is giving women a new sense of self-esteem that is making change possible.
Zahoora was educated but knew nothing about birth control. An unwanted pregnancy would have nullified all her achievements. It was her education that gave her the negotiating skills to persuade her husband that family planning would change their life. She is an agent of change and every individual in her family will be expected to play the same role.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zubeida Mustafa is a senior journalist and former assistant editor at Dawn, Pakistan's most widely circulated English language daily newspaper. She writes a weekly column for the paper focusing on social issues, including education, health, and women.