Non-government organisations find themselves navigating a minefield of social mores and cultural-religious sensitivities in educating children about sexual and reproductive health rights.
Try to teach children ‘too much’ at the wrong age and you might end up encouraging social resistance, thus hurting your own education efforts, or offending religious sentiment, which could have even more serious consequences, say activists working to raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health.
“The most accurate of information on SRHR [sexual and reproductive health rights] shared with the wrong age bracket can have a substantially negative effect,” says Iftikhar Mubarak, who is the liaison coordinator for Plan Pakistan, which runs the Reproductive Health Initiative for Adolescents. “It is necessary to appreciate the cultural and religious sensitivity of the subject.”
The initiative, which aims to educate adolescents in more than 10 districts across the country as well as slum areas near Islamabad, targets different information to kids in three age groups 9 to 13, 14 to 16 and 17 to 19.
The project has been running for almost four years now. Dr Irfan Ahmed, senior health advisor at Plan Pakistan, says while there is no doubting the need for sexual and reproductive health education, “the information itself has become taboo”.
He says communities must be mobilised to understand the rationale for the information. The Plan initiative targets school dropouts. “Once the information is communicated and confidence built, communities give a warm response,” he said.
Last year in October, the NGO Bargad had to shelve its campaign to educate schoolgirls about reproductive health in Gujranwala after locals complained and filed a petition in the Lahore High Court, asking it to hold the organisation accountable for putting ‘objectionable material’ – on topics such as contraceptives and relationships with boys in a schoolbook for grades 8 to 10. The district government cancelled the deal under which the project had been launched in 35 government schools. The project was later relaunched in private schools in the same area.
Sabiha Shaheen, the executive director at Bargad, says there is no denying that the subject needs to be addressed carefully, but it can have positive effects when done right.
In training sessions held under the project, she says, it emerged that some women felt a great deal of shame in visiting a gynaecologist, because they believed that people assumed that they could not reproduce or were seeking an abortion. Several women told Bargad representatives that they hesitated taking their daughters to a gynaecologist because of the social stigma.
“But once all the fear about the subject is removed, people are very open to such issues,” says Shaheen. “Only a few people, who lack the appropriate knowledge, find SRHR education hard to digest.”
Teachers often ignore their responsibility to educate young people about reproductive health, says Omer Aftab, the chief executive of the HAYAT-Lifeline campaign, which lobbies policymakers, religious leaders and communities to engage in such education
He has seen schools where chapters on reproduction were stapled together by teachers so students couldn’t study them. “It is like no one feels it is their responsibility to educate the child about these subjects,” he says.
The HAYAT campaign, now almost 18 months old, has support from Deobandi, Barelvi and Shia religious scholars. Among them is Dr Raghib Hussian Naeemi, the nazim of Jamia Naeemia in Garhi Shahu.
The failure to discuss sexual and reproductive health rights is one of the biggest dilemmas in the subcontinent, he says. The reluctance to speak on the subject, he says, is wrongly attributed to religion. “According to Islam, adolescents should be given information on all subjects including sexual and reproductive health,” he says.
A consultation with 25 ulema was held at the Jamia Naeemia last week in this regard.
A father of two sons and a daughter, Dr Naeemi says the greatest responsibility lies with the parents. “Both my wife and myself educate our children on issues of sexual and reproductive health, and that includes my daughter.”