An awareness campaign, aiming to reframe the debate on sexual health and contraception so it is less of a taboo in Pakistani society, was launched here on Thursday.
Scholars from the three most popular Islamic sects in Pakistan – Barelvi, Shia and Deobandi – were consulted in order to tackle the myth that such discussions are un-Islamic, said Omer Aftab, the chief executive of LifeLine, a campaign of the Women’s Empowerment Group, a non-government organisation.
Only 29 per cent of girls and 41 per cent of boys have access to accurate information about puberty and hygiene in Pakistan, said Aftab, addressing a press conference. The Hayat programme will raise awareness of these issues and thus help adolescent address the physical and emotional challenges of growing into adulthood, he said. The message will be sent out via television, radio, community theatre and concerts.
Aftab said that adulthood was discussed in the Quran and Sunnah. A number of religious scholars had been consulted “who have further educated us on the religious aspect of these matters”.
The programmes is endorsed by Maulana Raghib Husain Naeemi, head of Jamia Naeemia; Aftab Hussain Al Jawad, dean of the Faculty of Sharia at Al Kausar Islamic University; and Mufti Naeem of Jamia Binoria Alamia.
Aftab said no serious effort had been made to sensitise the 100 million young Pakistanis about sexual and reproductive health, which remained a taboo for much of society. Maulana Naeemi, he said, had stressed the importance of guidance for adolescents, as without it children could choose the wrong company and fall into bad habits.
“Our religion does not forbid us from discussing or imparting proper guidance to children on these sensitive issues,” said Aftab. “They should not be labelled as socially proscribed.”
He said that many parents did not know how to, or did not want to, answer questions about psychological and physiological issues, so the Hayat project also aimed to motivate parents and teachers to talk without inhibition. He said leaving children to their own devices to gather information may lead them to develop half-baked notions which could in some cases lead to exploitation. “Parents, especially in the middle and lower-middle classes, should discuss these issues with their children,” he said.
“The emotional and physical changes taking place during adolescence shape the personality of the child and the remaining years of life merely become a reflection of those traits,” he said.
Aftab said that most couples were ignorant of the importance of birth-spacing. Only 4 per cent of married girls aged 15 to 19 used contraceptives, and only 11 per cent of women aged 20 to 24 years. “Islam encourages birth spacing of at least two years by assigning the mother the duty of breast-feeding,” he said. “International organisations are now advocating an even longer birth interval to protect the health of mothers and babies.”
He said that Al Jawad of Al Kausar Islamic University had explained the benefits of having a small family. The more children a couple have, the more they have to spend on their health, education and other things. A family might be able to cater to the needs of two children, but not five children.
Aftab said that the general societal attitude towards women was deplorable. “It is our collective responsibility to stop violence against women by raising our voices,” he said.
Mufti Naeem, he said, had pointed out that the Holy Quran commands husbands to treat their wives well.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2012.