Today Muhammad Shahzad Khan, the 27-year-old founder and executive director of Chanan Development Association, will tell an audience of 500 at the Gotham Hall in New York that young people in Pakistan are ready to make their society peaceful and progressive.
Khan will become the first Pakistani and the first man to receive the International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women and Girls, awarded by The Friends of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since its introduction six years ago. According to the organisation, he is being given the award in recognition of his efforts to mobilise and empower young people against social injustices, specifically young girls in Pakistan.
The award is expected to be presented by the UNFPA Executive Director Dr Babatunde Osotimehin and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Khan hails from a village in Bahawalpur. He was 12 when village elders t0ld his father to marry his teenage sister to a 50-year-old man. He and his family went on a hunger strike. The wedding was called off but the family had to leave the village and settle in Lahore.
“The entire village boycotted us,” he recalls, “There was no option for us except to move.” In rural areas, family ties are strong and decisions made by the elders of the village are expected to be followed.
“It was very difficult for my father to go against his elders,” said Khan. He describes that as his first memory of speaking up against social injustice. “I don’t know how it happened, it just did,” he said.
In 2004, Khan formed the Chanan Theatre Group with likeminded friends, which performed as many as 500 plays across the Punjab. The plays focused on social issues including forced marriage and gender inequality.
In 2006, Khan registered the theatre group as Chanan Development Association, aiming to identify and organise youth who wanted to bring about a change in the society. He describes the early days of the organisation as “challenging”.
It was difficult to convince people of the youth’s potential.
With Rs5,000 Khan and his group managed to conduct social activities to engage as many as 1,000 young individuals. Since then the CDA has organised more than 1,000 theatre performances to educate the youth about gender equality and women rights, conducted young women leadership forums and youth festivals.
The association also established the UNFPA’s Youth Peer Education Network in 2009, which has engaged 20,000 youth on health, sexual and reproductive rights.
Khan, who became the first person in his family to get a masters degree, believes the lack of education is to blame for the high prevalence of social injustices.
He also regrets that despite a greater understanding of women development in Pakistan, interventions fail to engage male members of the society. “You have to understand the men, especially those from tribal areas, because without their support, women cannot progress,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2012.