Two Pakistani Youth are Speaking Out on the Importance of Inclusivity in Sexual and Reproductive Health
By Emma Chadband, Communications Officer, FP2020
Family planning advocates in Pakistan, an FP2020 commitment maker since 2012, have worked hard to make sure the country’s FP programs address the needs of a variety of users. Saro Imran and Tanzila Khan, two young people changing the SRH movement in their country, are proud to explain why making sure this movement is for everyone — including sexual and gender minorities as well as disabled people — is so important to them.
Tell us a bit about yourself, Saro. How old are you, and where do you live?
My name is Saro Imran. I’m an advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). I’m 26 years old and living in the region of Multan, Southern Punjab, Pakistan.
When did you get involved in family planning? What inspired you to get involved in this space?
I was repeatedly abused by my tutor when I was 12 years old. The abuse continued for quite some time at home while, at the same time, I was harassed and discriminated against in school because of my identity.
In 2008, I was only 15 when a group of people physically assaulted me because of my gender identity, and they tried to cut my reproductive organs as a “fix.” After that, I spent two years in a deep depression from the trauma — but ultimately, I promised myself that I would be a contender — not only a casualty — to help other marginalized young people.
My first success was that my family accepted me as a queer person in 2010. I started my education again. After completing my studies, I started working as a youth advocate for sexual and reproductive health & rights and family planning for sexual and gender minority young people. I hope I can serve as a voice for other sexual and gender minority young people who don’t have the chance to speak.
How do you see family planning overlapping with sexual and gender minority rights?
Reproductive health and rights — including the decision to have children — are basic rights regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but a person’s sexual and gender minority identity is sometimes another barrier to accessing family planning services due to stigma and discrimination.
Furthermore, family acceptance of sexual and gender minority family members is a major component when we talk about family planning in a broader perspective. The important thing to remember is that your child is still the same person they were before they told you about their sexuality. They have been brave and honest telling you about their sexuality, even though they may have been afraid of your reaction.
How can family planning programs address the needs of sexual and gender minority individuals? What should their first step be?
Family planning programs should address the unique needs of sexual and gender minority couples for reproduction and planning their families, including egg donation, gestational carriers, sperm donation, etc. There is a myth that sexual and gender minority couples can’t or don’t want to plan for a family — but really, they just need different family planning tools and education than heterosexual couples.
Moreover, I also believe the concept of “family planning” should include a plan for the family you may already have: for instance, family acceptance of sexual and gender minority individuals. This should be the first step family planning programs address because, although there are a number of sources of support for sexual and gender minority youth, none has as big an impact as acceptance by families. Peer support, community support, and being “out” and open all contribute to life satisfaction, self-esteem, and a sense of self-worth for young people, but family support has a significantly stronger influence on overall adjustment and well-being. I want to advocate for family acceptance of sexual and gender minority youth to become part of the heart of the family planning movement.
How do you think young people can get involved in the family planning space?
I believe the first step is for more senior advocates to realize the importance of youth involvement in their programs, and welcome young people into leadership roles. I would like to refer here to the example of the most recent FP2020 Asia Regional Focal Point Workshop (AFPW). I participated as a youth focal point from Pakistan. In programs where there is meaningful youth engagement, there are improvements in outreach and representation of young members of key affected populations. In short, when young people are put in positions to advocate for family planning in their own communities, more young people are likely to use family planning. Lastly, in the global family planning movement, there is a need for further investments in capacity building, training, inclusive participation spaces, and research on meaningful youth participation, so young people feel empowered and welcome to join.
How do family planning programs miss the opportunity to serve the needs of sexual and gender minority youth? Where are the biggest gaps and opportunities?
I think the family planning needs of sexual & gender minorities are an understudied but growing area of research. Sexual and gender minorities have family planning needs, both similar to and distinct from their exclusively heterosexual peers. Specifically, sexual minority women experience unintended pregnancies at higher rates than their exclusively heterosexual peers, but factors that increase this risk are not well understood.
Thanks Saro! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
My journey around my gender identity isn’t over. I still face issues and hurdles for being open about my gender identity and being an advocate for sexual and gender minorities in a society where stigmatization and discrimination is high. I’m confident that I will be advocating for gender justice and rights for sexual and gender minorities, as well as mental health issues that often impact these communities, throughout my life.
Saro is a Program Manager at the Activists Alliance Foundation, Pakistan ︱the Lead for Pakistan at Vision Youth Council ︱ the Country Coordinator at International Youth Alliance for Family Planning (IYAFP) ︱ a Women Deliver Member & Young Leader ︱ and a Youth Voice Count (YVC) Member.
Hi Tanzila! Tell us a bit about yourself. How old are you? Where do you live?
I am 28 years old and I live in Lahore, Pakistan, with my family. I’m a public speaker and entrepreneur, and I’ve used a wheelchair my whole life.
When did you get involved in family planning? What inspired you to get involved in this space?
I got involved accidentally, actually. I was once roped into a workshop on sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) with Y-peer, which was definitely not my area of work in 2011. My passion always stayed with public speaking, entrepreneurship, and development, but after attending that workshop I realized how much SRHR is the root of patriarchy and how much it connects with disability and discrimination. That got my interest high and I started actively participating and taking initiatives. To my surprise, many of them were first-of-its kind and very little work has been done on the links between SRHR and disability.
What makes the family planning needs of women and girls with disabilities unique?
Interestingly they are not unique. They’re the same normal, “regular” requirements of any other girl. Disability itself is unique in that it makes our lifestyle unique, but just like any other person, we need access to services, products, information, and safe sex.
How do you think family planning programs can better address the needs of women and girls with disabilities?
It would make a huge difference if we can make our panels and decision-making bodies more inclusive and with better representation. The leadership itself would trickle down and ask for more inclusion all the way to the grassroots level.
People have a hard time talking about the sexual health of women and girls with disabilities. How do you think you’re tackling that stigma?
It is indeed a challenging subject because there is so much that has not been explored or talked about by people with disabilities themselves. Many have not even experienced sex because of the stigma of being unlovable. We have a long way to go to change this stigma across the world. Disability is not ugliness, it’s a state of being that we all will experience at some point.
Tell us about your app, GirlyThings. Who can use it, and what does it do?
GirlyThings is mobile friendly, and it works to deliver sanitary napkins at home to women across Pakistan. We also deliver urgent menstrual kits to women at their workplace. There is nothing in this world that would stop women from being awesome — not even those days!
Why did you decide to create an app?
It once happened that during my daily errands, I started my period and realized that even though I may be able to afford sanitary napkins, shops are usually not accessible to me at all — which got me thinking about other barriers that women face.
Why did you focus on young people and adolescents?
I feel young people take more time in understanding and prioritizing their health. Buying products related to reproductive and menstrual health is an altogether cumbersome experience. So why not start from there where young people can have basic access? That’s why we started delivering at home.
Have you heard from people who have used it so far? What is their experience?
So far we have had only positive reviews and lots of feedback on how we can cater to communities better. It is overwhelming! We also won the World Summit Award for this year.
Have you heard from other people in the family planning movement about the app? Lawmakers or other decision makers?
Not yet. But I am hopeful to start many more discussions around how we can create accessibility for SRHR for people.
How can others get involved in the family planning movement?
Others must know their own and others’ basic rights first. It starts from there where we realize there is so much that we abuse without even realizing it.
What are your plans now?
I’m hoping to expand the app across Pakistan and to other countries.