The International Women’s Health Coalition partner Aahung, a brilliant Karachi-based organization, has been promoting comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in Pakistan since 1994. In August of this year, a national backlash broke out against CSE in Pakistan after a conservative religious newspaper, the Daily Ummat, reported that the Dawood Public School was using a western Science textbook containing sex education. While these pages had been stapled shut by administrators, some students opened the pages and complained to their parents. An initial public outcry against sexuality education gave way to deeper conversations amongst parents, teachers, religious leaders and community workers about the reality that young people need access to accurate and culturally- sensitive information about their bodies and their lives.
Within the context of rising religious fundamentalism, questions about who has the moral authority to determine appropriate education for young people, or to determine what is or is not appropriate sexuality, are salient. As Aisha Ijaz, Youth Training & Communications Coordinator at Aahung, recently explained to me, religious leaders have the final authority in Pakistan in all social and cultural matters.
Aahung is particularly vulnerable to backlash because they are one of only a few organizations in Pakistan who are pushing for a greater dialogue on sexuality and human rights. During the Dawood controversy, they received threatening phone calls and numerous newspaper articles were published against their work.
Facing threats, Aahung could have backed down from their work to promote CSE. Instead, they decided to seize the political environment to more directly engage key religious leaders as allies. They have begun to do trainings designed specifically for religious leaders, and are targeting prominent religious scholars as spokespeople. They are now working to convene a meeting of high-level religious leaders to develop a statement on what Islam says about sexuality education. Their painstaking efforts to forge alliances with religious leaders have already begun to bear fruit.
In mid-December, The International News, a leading English newspaper in Pakistan, published an article on how religious leaders are promoting sexuality education (not online). Some of the religious leaders quoted in the article were recently trained by Dr. Sikander Sohani, Senior Clinical Manager and Farah Millwala, Training Unit Manager at Aahung. Such developments provide inspiration for how movements and organizations for sexual rights and social justice can promote CSE in conservative contexts.