|A Woman Changing the World: A Conversation with Aahung Director Rahal Saeed|
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Currently the Director of Aahung, Rahal Saeed has significant experience in program management, gender, empowerment, and reproductive health. She has worked for CEDPA (Centre for Population and Development Activities) in Washington, DC, where she was seconded to the Catalyst Consortium, a global reproductive health project. She has an MA in International Training and Education with a focus on developing and implementing participatory training programs, non-formal education, gender, and international development.
Rahal Saeed: My mother was actually one of the founders of the women's movement in Pakistan, so I grew up with it. As I attended protests and events with her, I eventually became interested and started to read and research on my own. In terms of health, again, I think I was initially influenced by her, and eventually ended up looking at reproductive and sexual health from a rights perspective.
CH: Can you share a little about Aahung and your work there? What is it that makes your organization unique?
RS: At Aahung we focus on sexual health and rights. What I like about Aahung and our work is that our perspective is holistic and integrated, so it's not just about health per se. There are too many organizations in reproductive health that focus on service delivery and the clinical side, but not on social determinants and more comprehensive approaches. more>>
CH: What kinds of challenges does it present being the only organization in Pakistan focusing on these issues?
RS: We end up being spread very thin because no one else is working on a lot of the issues that we are. Although more organizations focus on sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, for example, we are one of the few organizations that approaches these issues from a rights-based perspective. Most of the others look at the clinical service delivery angle. more>>
CH: What are the major impacts of the overall political, social, and/or religious norms in Pakistan on the health and rights of women and young people?
RS: Pakistan has certain legislation that discriminates against women. Until very recently, there was no clear distinction between rape and adultery under the law. So, for example, if a married woman reported a rape, she was also often accused of committing adultery, because by reporting the rape she was admitting to sexual intercourse outside of marriage. more>>
CH: Do you see the level of commitment to gender equality changing at all?
RS: I do see it changing-especially in urban settings. There are a lot more women working outside the home. Part of the change is driven by economics, but I think it's also partially driven by the fact that more girls have been educated over the past ten or 15 years. more>>
CH: How does Aahung work to overcome the stigma and misinformation that surrounds sexuality and sex in Pakistan?
RS: We conduct a lot of trainings, and a core focus of those, as well as the many resources that we develop, is to sensitize participants on issues regarding sexuality and sexual health, stigma, discrimination, etc. We take every opportunity to get our messages across, and are often invited for talk shows and interviews on TV and the radio.
CH: Do you see much opposition to that work?
RS: Interestingly, what we often find when we go into communities are people who are desperate for information. Everyone's body changes, and there is no one to go to with questions in Pakistan. more>>
CH: What do you consider to be the role of civil society organizations like yours in achieving the broader goals that you have for your country?
RS: We play a role at multiple levels. Though we may not necessarily be doing service delivery directly, we still have to keep in touch with communities. The other role that we play is at the government level, to influence policy change-and that presents various challenges. more>>
CH: Is there a large civil society movement in Pakistan?
RS: It's growing. It's not big enough yet, but it's growing. There are definitely more organizations than there used to be. But, again, there is a disconnect between policymakers and civil society. There isn't enough dialogue. more>>
CH: What do you think we can do - advocates, civil society organizations, etc. - to inspire and affect leadership on gender issues in the next generation?
RS: One way is by example. From the late 1970s to the late 1980s in Pakistan, when all of these laws against women were introduced, martial law was in place. That's when the women's movement was born. There was a lot of momentum and there was a lot to fight against. When martial law ended, while the laws remained, the situation wasn't as bad as it used to be, and somehow, along the way, some of the fervor has been lost. more>>
CH: What do you see as some of the greatest challenges to women's and young people's health and rights…in Pakistan or in the global context?
RS: The impact of HIV/AIDS on women's and young people's health and rights is huge, and there still isn't enough awareness about it-especially about feminization of the epidemic. Too many people, in government and in the general public, are not aware of the fact that the epidemic is now trickling into the general population. more>>
CH: What is your vision for an ideal or better world?
RS: An ideal world would be one where organizations like ours don't need to exist and where you don't need to have big conferences like the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, or the International Conference on Population and Development, because all those issues are already addressed. more>>