By Suzanne Ito

Four years after its inception in 1994, Pakistan-based NGO Aahung surveyed adolescent girls’ and boys’ knowledge of issues including sexual health, bodily changes, and gender-based discrimination and violence. What they found would be shocking to many. Girls were unaware about menstruation, and spoke of the trauma of having their first period. According to Aahung founder Shazia Mohamed, “[T]hey thought they were bleeding to death.”

Nearly 20 years later, Aahung has made a lot of progress to inform Pakistan’s youths about these issues, but the same work continues. The organization is currently focused on improving and expanding sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) education, services, and information for adolescents and young adults in schools and medical institutions.

Aahung’s director, Sheena Hadi, is leading the effort. She notes that Aahung’s approach to SRHR has always targeted a broader audience: while official government-sponsored school curricula only covers maternal and infant health issues, Aahung has brought sexual and reproductive health issues into the discussion, with the goal of educating more adolescents and young adults about their rights. “We’ve now incorporated programs for primary school children as well which look at body protection and confidence-building at a younger age,” Hadi says.”And [this] also gives us a very good entry point to working with adolescents at a later stage.”

With their Life-Skills Based Education (LSBE), based in Sindh province in southeast Pakistan, Aahung has not only reached thousands of young boys and girls, it has also benefitted the teachers they’re training to replicate the curriculum year after year. One teacher, Ms. Naheed, said that after learning about the importance of gender equality in LBSE training, “I now treat my daughters and son equally.”

The organization also operates community programs aimed to educate young couples who are engaged or recently married couples about family planning, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, domestic violence, and women’s rights in consenting to marry and within the marriage itself.

The final component is working directly with “pre-service” students—students in nursing and medical school—to train them in the skills required to work on sexual health issues such as confidentiality and the ethical issues involved. “The advantage of pre-service is that they tend to be younger, so they tend to be a little more flexible in their attitudes and biases at that point,” Hadi says. Aahung integrated sustainability mechanisms into these programs so SRHR issues are infused into the teaching curriculum, so the lessons are taught to each new generation of students.

Aahung tailors its SRHR programs to different audiences, but all programs have a rights-based foundation. “It’s really grounding all of it in dignity, respect, diversity, and diverse needs,” Hadi says.

Making the school curriculum acceptable to all parties required a lot of input and some compromise. “We basically made expert working groups, and in those, we included people who are working on sexuality education. We included administrators, teachers, young people, parents, we even included academics and religious leaders. We basically had them review a lot of the content, give us feedback on the content itself, and help us break down what we we’re doing,” Hadi says.

Even with this careful and often painstaking approach, Aahung has received pressure to compromise the integrity of its programs. “We’ve had a lot of pressure to do things like include religious references and things like that into our content,” Hadi says. But “our stance as an organization is still that we will not do that, we don’t feel that we need to do that, we really strongly feel that a rights foundation will allow us to continue doing the work that we’re doing.”

In September 2012, Hadi attended the 6th Asian and Pacific Population Conference in Bangkok, where governments in Asia and the Pacific worked to commit to a progressive agenda for women and young people and promote their human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights. Hadi worked with the Pakistan delegation to ensure that governments addressed the needs of youth. By the end of the conference, Pakistan and 37 other countries in the region adopted a comprehensive Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Population and Development, which placed a strong emphasis on the rights of young people. In particular, the governments committed to provide comprehensive sexuality education, ensure access to contraception including for the unmarried, increase education and employment opportunities, promote gender equality, prevent violence against women and girls, and end early and forced marriage.

In late 2013, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs honored Hadi and Aahung with the Human Rights Tulip, which is awarded every year to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ministry noted Aahung’s commitment to involving multiple stakeholders to engage in difficult issues as a key ingredient in their effectiveness.

Ultimately, Aahung’s holistic approach can alter the lives of the adolescents and young adults they educate. “These programs change the way that adolescents feel about their circumstances,” Hadi says. “Pakistan is a very ageist society, a very gender-segregated, discriminatory society. So if you look at a young girl, being able to improve her support systems, particularly through communication, is really critical to her health outcomes.”