Speak Up - Because it Matters: Small Act, Big Impact

In a country where females are the less privileged gender, especially in the rural areas that constitute the larger part of Pakistan – a provincial state university became the first in the region to begin active discourse on Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). This was due to the successful implementation of a cornerstone project titled ‘Speak Up’, part of an advocacy initiative under the Women Deliver Young Leaders Program.

The Speak Up project approached the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, with a proposal to include SRHR, HIV/AIDS, Gender Mainstreaming and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their syllabi. After a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the university administration and the Speak Up project lead, a process of sensitizing began with current students of the university to kick-start the initiative.

“I have never been able to discuss even basic sanitation with my own parents,” said 22-year-old student Shahida, “My mother only told me to use old cloth when I was having my first period, and nothing more. I had no idea what was happening to me - I was terrified!”

It is unfortunate that sanitation, which is a basic right for women, was not made available to Shahida due to a lack of awareness and the stigma associated with women buying sanitary towels from the market - which in itself is scarcely available in the region.

This is only a small example of the existing situation in the project location - Sindh province. Almost nobody took the liberty to engage in conversations related to SRHR or HIV/AIDS due to social and cultural restraints, leading the majority to look upon these subjects as taboo. Subsequently, the youth and especially young women in the region had always remained highly vulnerable to STIs and gender-based discrimination. The taboos even barred teachers from speaking about the issues in their classrooms, as they stuck to their respective syllabi. It also emerged, from initial meetings with faculty members and students, that only a handful of people were aware of the SDGs and the government’s commitments to achieving the relevant objectives.

The Speak Up project changed the existing dynamic by engaging both students and faculty of the University to the extent that the teachers as well as students have started discussing issues related to basic sanitation, SRHR and STIs. They were first sensitized in expertly delivered awareness sessions on Gender Mainstreaming, SDGs, HIV/AIDS and SRHR, followed by practical implementation (fieldwork) - which employed the use of technology, building a database of a considerable sample size and analyzing the data collected. The identified students conducted a Knowledge, Attitude and Practices (KAP) focusing on SRHR, Gender related issues and HIV/AIDS in households of lower, middle and upper income. The efficient use of technology not only helped in collecting real-time data but also analyzing it with access to the dashboard.

The greatest challenge faced in the project was during the initial phase. Skepticism over the fact that topics such as HIV/AIDS would be discussed in the open, raised concerns with institution authorities regarding their taboo status. Authorities feared backlash, being a public institution and a representative of the Sindhi culture.

However, the challenge was tackled effectively after meetings with key stakeholders and decision-makers in the university, after which university officials welcomed the idea of making the syllabi inclusive of SRHR, HIV/AIDS, Gender Mainstreaming and SDGs. Subsequently, a process of transformation began with the Speak Up project. Master Trainers were identified (among teachers and students comprising young men and women) and trained to become experts in these subject areas.

The university administration facilitated the project team by providing physical infrastructure, including training halls as well as participating in identifying and shortlisting the trainees. 100 young individuals (50 men and 50 women) were to be trained as part of the project, but the response was overwhelming - leading to the participation of 160 students in the training program and other interventions of the project including a post-training test, essay competition and a drawing competition.

As part of the practical implementation, it was initially planned to involve six top-performers in an Android-based Knowledge, Attitude and Practices (KAP) Study focusing on the above-mentioned subjects. However, over 20 students approached the project team and expressed their interest in taking part in the study - a majority of whom were young women. The KAP study provided students with a baseline information on how people belonging to different income groups take SRHR, HIV/AIDS and gender related matters in the target areas.

This use of technology reduced the time, input and probability of errors considerably since the project team digitally designed the KAP survey tools. The identified students collected and analyzed the field data by using android phones and web dashboard. A number of students have since subscribed to Women Deliver’s notifications and newsletters to remain up-to-date on topics relevant to the content of the Speak Up project. In addition, those who were awarded smartphones for implementation of the KAP study have become ambassadors of Women Deliver in their respective communities - sharing their insights as thought-leaders.

“I feel so liberated - finally, we have the opportunity to educate our students and have open discussions on these important aspects of development thanks to the Speak Up project,” said a senior member of the faculty.

While the project duration was short, it had a significant impact. One of the greatest successes of the project is that it has now become apparent that taboos have started to break down. Young men and women are not only talking about SRHR, HIV/AIDS, Gender Mainstreaming and SDGs, but they are also realizing their responsibility towards actionable intervention.

The trained students have started conducting orientation sessions for their fellow students and within their respective communities - sharing their learnings. Similarly, the sensitized teachers have also convinced more members of the faculty about the importance and relevance of the topics.

The success of the project was also realized when the Speak Up project team began receiving requests from a number of other departments of the university, as well as other universities to implement the project in their respective jurisdiction.

The Speak Up project could not have been possible without the generous support of Women Deliver, and it aims to reach out to more institutions to sensitize the masses on the importance of SRHR, HIV/AIDS, Gender Mainstreaming & SDGs.

Muhammad Khalid Rao is an advocate and a Women Deliver Young Leader. The Women Deliver Young Leaders Program is a catalyst for rising advocates, providing access to small grants, training, a digital university, speaking opportunities, and networking. Since 2010, a total of 700 young people from 138 countries have increased their impact through the award-winning program so far. Many will be coming together in Vancouver this June for Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality. This piece was produced in partnership between Women Deliver and Wellbeing for Women.