Empowering Pakistani Women through Education and Family Planning

Source: The WIP

A happy family: Zahoora with husband Rahib Ali and three children at their ‘Safe Space’. Photograph courtesy of the Indus Resource Centre.

Empowerment is opening up new spaces for personal development for women in Pakistan. As opportunities for education come within their reach women are learning how to upgrade their lives. This has brought the realization that a big family may not be a blessing, and can actually handicap women. This is a big leap from where women were a few years ago, when motherhood was widely regarded as a status symbol. The more male children women had the more respect they could command. Sons brought a sense of security as they consolidated a woman’s position in the household and ensured that a second wife would not displace her.
As women become empowered through education and work, some are opting for small families.

Take the case of Zahoora who lives in Kumb, a small town in rural Sindh. She is 28 years old and has three children who were born in quick succession. For Zahoora her two daughters and a son means her family is complete. She loves her children and enjoys taking care of them. Since she is educated and her husband is supportive, she also works and adds to the family income. Zahoora is a teacher in the neighborhood school.

A few months ago Zahoora became anxious. Her experience told her that without contraception, soon another baby would be on its way. Zahoora did not want any more children for she knew that four would make her life difficult and she would have to leave her job. She had also been ill after the birth of her second child.

Zahoora typifies what demographers describe as the phenomenon of women not wanting more children but not being contraceptive users. In Pakistan 25 percent of married women – six million women – fall in this category.

Zahoora learned that a team from the Reproductive Health through Girls’ Education (RHGE) of the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) would be talking to women about family planning in Kumb. It sounded interesting and Zahoora’s curiosity was aroused. She went to the meeting and returned home with new ideas in her head. They made a lot of sense and she felt inclined to agree with what had been discussed.

Once Zahoora was convinced about contraception and family planning, she had the confidence to talk to her husband, Rahib Ali. He was a man of commonsense and understood her perspective. The next day Zahoora went to the population clinic in Kumb with Ali; and after some counseling, they made their choice of the contraceptive with which they felt most comfortable. They joined the 30 percent of couples in the country who use contraceptives.

NGOs like the IRC have discovered that it pays more to combine reproductive health education with other social activities. Though there is a lot of awareness about family planning today, Moomal Soomro, the project officer of RHGE and a trained population counselor, points out no program can succeed without counseling and mobilization. Regrettably that has generally not been available. The population growth rate that had declined to 1.5 percent is now said to be a higher rate of 2.05 percent.

Soomro speaks of the changes she has seen in the three years since the RHGE program was launched. IRC began twelve years ago as a project for female education, poverty alleviation, improved maternal health, and environmental sustainability. The ultimate aim was to bring about sustained behavioral change in marginalized communities. But it was soon realized that no change was possible without the empowerment of women whose role was typically subservient in a patriarchal society.

To encourage behavioral change, “We then knew that we had to adopt a holistic and integrated strategy,” Soomro says. That is how the component of reproductive health was added to female education at the secondary level. The subjects covered are sex related topics of interest to adolescents – hygiene, marriage, human rights, and sexually transmitted diseases. While the pedagogy is participatory and discussion-based, it is discreet as being too candid would not have gone well with Pakistan’s conservative society.

The IRC has established a network of its school’s alumnae with other female members of the community. Dubbed the Young Women’s Professional Network, they conduct frequent sessions with women. “It was at one of these sessions that Zahoora was introduced to us,” Soomro explains.

The network serves as an institution where women interact with one another, enter into business partnerships, run projects, share ideas, and provide support to one another. Information and services on reproductive health are a part of the agenda.

Five members of the network have offered their homes to set up what are called “safe spaces.” These homes are provided with books, a white board, registers, and some stationery. Awareness raising meetings are held on a regular basis and women are trained to plan and organize the meetings, keep records, draw up agendas, and so on. Having established linkages with other community groups they are expected to become focal points for women and exert a strong influence on the community.

Sadiqa Salahuddin, the managing director of IRC, can already see the changes that are emerging. “Previously many girls were married off as early as eight years of age. The marriage age has gone up by several years. Many girls who have been betrothed continue to live with their parents who appreciate the support they get from their girls.”

There is no measure to gauge the confidence the young women gain as they take control of their lives. And while their confidence is palpable, it is also clear that no family planning program can succeed without an improvement in the status of women. By addressing all facets of life, the RHGE is giving women a new sense of self-esteem that is making change possible.

Zahoora was educated but knew nothing about birth control. An unwanted pregnancy would have nullified all her achievements. It was her education that gave her the negotiating skills to persuade her husband that family planning would change their life. She is an agent of change and every individual in her family will be expected to play the same role.

4 thoughts on “Empowering Pakistani Women through Education and Family Planning”

  1. The concluding line, (education that gave her the negotiating skills to persuade her husband that family planning would change their life), but one, is the core idea of your thoughts.

    But it has been seen that even some educated wife would yield to the pressure and would go for more child till a son is in family. Too many Indian have now adjusted with their two daughters only rather than to take risk of 3rd one as daughter or son.

    But what if quality children are sure. Examples are there, but rare, that a well to do and highly educated wife has given birth to four with a reasonable gap between two and these four were settled as a) Lady Doctor b) Lady Professional c) Engineer and d) Army Officer. Where there is no quality and no chance of education beyond primary school then even two children would make a big family.

  2. YOU HAVE MENTIONED IN YOUR ARTICLE ENTITLED "Empowering Pakistani Women through Education and Family Planning (The WIP)
    …" THAT….. """""""Sadiqa Salahuddin, the managing director of IRC, can already see the changes that are emerging. “Previously many girls were married off as early as EIGHT years of age. The marriage age has gone up by several years. Many girls who have been betrothed continue to live with their parents who appreciate the support they get from their girls.”"""""""""""""""
    DON'T YOU THINK IT IS AN EXAGGERATION? EVEN THE VILLAGERS DON'T MARRY OFF THEIR BELOVED DAUGHTERS IN SUCH AN IMMATURE AGE. YOU MAY SAY AT LEAST 12,13 OR SO…

    1. SSurprising you have not heard of young girls of 8 being married. I have met them. Here is an excerpt from a conference report on child marriages:
      The exact number of Early Marriages is not available due to lack of proper documentation and data collection,
      although plenty of evidence in the shape of regular media reports, case studies by various NGOs
      and INGOs as well as qualitative research is available to support this proposition. Media reports as
      well as case studies and qualitative research show that the young girls – as young as 6 months – are
      married to persons mostly much older than them and sometimes to boys of the same age.

  3. Surprising Mr Solangi that you do not know of child brides. I have met girls of 7 or 8 who have been married. Here is an excerpt from the report of a conference on early marriages:
    The exact number of Early Marriages is not available due to lack of proper documentation and data collection,
    although plenty of evidence in the shape of regular media reports, case studies by various NGOs
    and INGOs as well as qualitative research is available to support this proposition. Media reports as
    well as case studies and qualitative research show that the young girls – as young as 6 months – are
    married to persons mostly much older than them and sometimes to boys of the same age.

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