KARACHI, May 21: “Girls in our village are now educated and trained on a number of matters which, though so basic to life, were never addressed by their parents. These issues are related to our bodies, reproductive health, women’s rights and gender,” said on Tuesday a participant in a programme held to share the experiences of a project which completed its three years in Khairpur district.

The project tiled Reproductive Health through Girls’ Education was carried out by the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) in collaboration with the Sindh education department, Community Health Services of the Aga Khan University and Aahung. It was funded by David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

It covered 66 villages in the tehsils of Sobhodero, Gambat and Kotdiji in Khairpur district and benefited 3,066 girls and 2,114 boys receiving elementary education from 16 IRC and government schools.

The project addressed four millennium development goals relating to universal education, women empowerment, reduction in child mortality and improvement in maternal health.

Highlighting the many positive changes that the project has brought about in their life and community as a whole, a number of schoolchildren, teachers and members of the community, who were invited onstage, said that the outcomes of the initiative were just remarkable.

“It has given us a true understanding of what life is all about. Earlier, girls were confined to their homes and were afraid of going out. After this project, parents have started trusting them more while girls have gained a lot of confidence and are willing to go out for any need,” said a schoolteacher, adding that the confidence had also helped girls to discuss issues earlier considered a taboo such as menstruation.

Children, she said, now also knew about ‘bad touch’ and ‘good touch’ and asked questions.

A great achievement of the project, according to speakers, was the realisation of importance of education in the community.

“My brother had finalised his daughter’s wedding. A few days later, the boy’s family started pressurising him to have the wedding early. He told them hat it was possible only if they allowed his daughter to continue with her higher education. They refused and so did my brother,” said a member of a village community-based organisation while commenting on the behavioural changes the project had brought about.

On the use of birth control devices, speakers observed that before the start of the project many women had to use methods of contraception secretly whereas now some were discussing them with their husbands and taking joint decisions.

Referring to the observations of some experts working in the targeted group, they noted that a visible change had been observed in male and female attitudes towards contraception. For instance, men had taken the burden of birth control and there had been an increase in vasectomies. Khairpur, it was pointed out, had one of the highest numbers in vasectomies in Sindh. This change had come on account of increasing awareness among men who were also educated on safe sex.

Giving a presentation on the project’s evaluation findings prepared by Dr Asha Bedar and Maliha Zia Lari, Rahal Saeed, an independent consultant on reproductive health, said the NGO was able to establish credible reputation and good networks within the community and moved beyond formal education by creating awareness, building capacity and changing attitudes.

“A holistic approach was adopted and early resistance was dealt with appropriately. Mental health is now seen as an important component of health and there has been an increase on issues relating to health, especially sexual health.

“Mental violence is now seen as a form of domestic violence by men and boys. Women and girls are demanding their fundamental rights and resisting the pressure to forgo them. More people now believe that women should get married at a later age,” she said.

Speaking on the power of girls’ schooling, Iram Kamran of the Population Council said studies had shown that there was a strong linkage between girls’ schooling and women’s empowerment. Girl education also led to a reduction in early marriage cases, increased role of women in deciding family size and made women conscious of their wellbeing.

“Girl education is not just an opportunity for investment but a necessary condition for women’s empowerment,” she said.

Sadiqa Salahuddin and Sarah Zaman representing the IRC, Dr Yasmin Qazi of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Qadeer Baig of the Population Council also spoke.

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