Fatima Haider is the Program Manager at Aahung, a non-profit organization that aims to promote and protect sexual health and rights in Pakistan. She completed her Bachelors degree in Biology from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY (2002).

Fatima joined Aahung as a Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation Coordinator in 2003. She was promoted to Program Manager in 2004, despite being the youngest member of the organization. She has also served as the Acting Director for the organization. Since 2004, Fatima has also served as the coordinator for the Karachi Chapter of the Pakistan Reproductive Health Network.

IWHC: How did you get involved in the struggle for women’s and young people’s rights?

Fatima Haider: My initial struggle for women’s and young people’s rights started with my own personal commitment to ensuring for girls the same opportunities usually provided only to boys in my society. These include being able to drive, getting a higher education, and then later, marrying someone of your own choice. I have always been passionately against discrimination of women and girls in Pakistan and have been advocating for equal rights since my early teens. However, I only got involved in this struggle formally since I joined Aahung (the organization I work for) in 2003.

IWHC: What inspired you to start working with Aahung?

FH: Initially, I joined Aahung because I was intrigued by its bold mandate (i.e. promoting and protecting sexual health and rights). I was interested to learn about how Aahung had so far successfully worked on such a taboo and sensitive issue without being banned or shut down in a predominantly conservative Pakistani environment. Aahung was, and probably still is, the only organization in Pakistan that purely addresses issues relating to sex and sexuality. Simply being a part of this organization has been an extremely empowering experience.

For example, an experience that particularly stands out is the sexuality awareness workshop that I participated in a few weeks after I joined Aahung. It was the first time that I had ever explored my own sexuality and challenged some of my values and beliefs surrounding sexuality. It was an extremely eye-opening experience for me. I came out of the workshop much more aware of myself and my values and realized that it was my right to make decisions about my life. Since then, I not only see decision-making as my right but have also started taking responsibility for my own decisions.

IWHC: How do you feel that Aahung has changed young people’s lives, either in specific instances or in general?

FH: One of the key initiatives of my organization is developing life skills in young people from various communities—including developing girls’ self-esteem, giving young people information about their health and rights and how to protect it, as well as teaching respect and negotiation skills within relationships. We have found that the young people who have been exposed to this program are now more aware, confident, and responsible. In rural communities, where often girls would not even be allowed to leave their homes, the life skills program has helped integrate them into the external society—through things like participating in theater groups, performing in public spaces. They are raising awareness in their communities and promoting health and rights among their peers and families.

IWHC: What do you see as major challenges facing young people in Pakistan today? What about greatest opportunities?

FH: The situation of young people in Pakistan varies greatly among sexes, rural and urban areas and provinces. One of the major challenges for boys in both rural and urban areas is a feeling of hopelessness in terms of job opportunities and climbing up social ladder. Similarly, the options for extracurricular activities are severely limited and so young men usually resort to spending most of their time loitering on the streets and hence become more vulnerable to engaging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex, drug and alcohol use.

The mobility of girls, more so in the rural areas, is extremely restricted. They are usually not given any educational opportunities and have little to no decision-making power about their own lives. While the mobility and education level of girls in urban areas is somewhat better, they are still usually not able to exercise their right to make decisions about their lives, especially in terms of marriage and career.

Some challenges common to both sexes include the lack of healthy avenues for interaction between boys and girls, and limited, inaccessible resources relating to age-appropriate and accurate information about their body parts and processes. There are also very few health care-related services that are youth-friendly and cater to their particular needs.

[Opportunities] Since young people form the largest cohort of Pakistan’s population, the Government is pressed to invest in them. I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for young people to increase their involvement in some of the initiatives that the Government and private sector are taking. One such initiative is the Youth Parliament, a pilot project organized by PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) in collaboration with the Government of Pakistan. Patterned after the National Assembly of Pakistan, the Youth Parliament is a model parliament for young people. The first session brought together 60 youths between the ages of 18 and 29 from across Pakistan. By participating in the model parliament, youths are engaged in the political discourse and exposed to democratic practices and processes. The forum allows young people to express their views on local, national, and regional issues, and fosters a culture of understanding and tolerance for different viewpoints.

IWHC: What do you think are some of the most important issues for programmers and policymakers to address in order to promote and protect the health and rights of young people—especially young girls?

FH: When developing programs or policies pertaining to young people, it is extremely important to remember that confidentiality must be given utmost priority. Services should be non-threatening and the providers should create an atmosphere in which the young person availing the service never feels judged. This is particularly crucial in a context like Pakistan, where the privacy of young people and their right to health services and information is often not respected.

Since mobility of young girls is extremely limited, it would be important to try and design the program or service in a way that reaches these young girls at home, for example, providing door-to-door services or developing community centers where it is easy and non-threatening for girls to gather.

IWHC: How can activists, policymakers, different groups work together to bring young people to the table?

FH: First, activists and policymakers must be willing to respect and accept the views and opinions of young people without judging them. Young people’s opinions and views are usually disregarded due to the perceived “lack of experience” or knowledge of young people. In order to encourage young people to raise their concerns, an atmosphere has to be created where they are provided with a safe and comfortable space for a meaningful dialogue. They must be assured that their opinion and needs are important and will be given priority.

IWHC: Do you have positive examples from your professional or personal experience in which both dialogue and programming have achieved meaningful youth participation or leadership? What was effective about these particular examples?

FH: It is only recently that Pakistan has started to recognize young people (adolescents) as a separate group of individuals, hence it is difficult to find examples where young people have participated meaningfully at a policy level.

IWHC: What are your dreams for the future? Can you describe your vision of an ideal or better world?

FH: A place where

  • women and children are treated with respect and dignity and not abused;
  • the education system enables young people to make positive decisions about their lives;
  • diversity of values and opinions is respected and religion is not imposed on others;
  • everyone has the right and the ability to decide on their sexual partner(s);
  • no one is coerced or violated;
  • where there is justice for all.

IWHC: How did you first become acquainted with IWHC?

FH: I first became acquainted with IWHC when I joined Aahung in 2003, as they provide funding to Aahung. IWHC is much more than just a donor for Aahung, they are role models and a source of inspiration for us. They have always believed in us and provided us with support and encouragement throughout the years that we have been acquainted with them. Their visits to Pakistan have helped us give more clarity and value to the work that we do.