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Rendezvous With Dr. Fauzia Saeed: Social Scientist, Gender Activist and Author Of The Best Seller “Taboo”

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Fauzia Saeed — a PhD from University of Minnesota and author of the well regarded ethnographic look at prostitution, Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area is a gender expert from Lahore, Pakistan. She has spent over two decades in positions related to the task of bringing social change in Pakistan. Having worked for the United Nations and other international development organizations, she is now a senior Director of Mehergarh, a human rights institute. Her new book, ‘Working with Sharks’ a riveting account of sexual harassment in the United Nations was published on 22nd December’11.

Fauzia Saeed

YKA’s Pakistan Lead, Waleed Tariq spoke to Fauzia Saeed, on her latest visit to Karachi. Excerpts:

From prostitutes of Shahi Mohalla to the women in entertainment industry and from activism against sexual harassment to the creation of the first women crises centre in Pakistan, majority of your has been women-oriented. What has encouraged you to do the work you’re doing today?

Yes, majority of my work has been women-oriented. This is because it is a personal affair to me. For the first time, I felt restrictions when I was not allowed to play on streets or socialize outside school. Having experienced it from childhood to adolescence is when I started to feel a soft corner for women.

After ‘Women in folklore’ and ‘Taboo: the hidden culture of a red light area’, your new book ‘Working with sharks’ is an account of eleven women who faced sexual harassment at the hands of a UN official in Islamabad. How you came about writing this book?

We live in a stereo-typical, patriarchal society where women’s rights are snatched. Honour killing has become legitimized murder and power is maintained through violence and social stratification. We need to have an awareness to challenge the status-quo.

I realized that women who were victims have been unable to lodge an FIR report against the culprits due to the threats and influential political family pressures. So I think collective action should be taken against sexual harassment.

Now the women have come out with their complaints and I decided to document my experience, resulting in my book ‘Working with Sharks’.

There were 100 men and 16 women at the UNDP office in Islamabad where I worked, and out of those 16, 11 women including me had been sexually harassed by the same official. We all had similar stories which continued for years, each victim staying silent out of fear and humiliation for being disgraced.

We, 11 victimized women took a strong action to lodge our complaints on 22nd Dec 1997 to the UN hierarchy, but all our attempts went in vain as no drastic action was taken against the official because of the bosses’ favouritism to him.

On taking the case to the court, we eventually won the case after two years resulting in the accused man firing on-spot and bringing out changes in UN itself.

This stand finally culminated into a legislation that has been passed by the Pakistani Parliament in March 2010 declaring sexual harassment as a serious crime. Also, in solidarity with the cause, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani declared 22nd December, date of the original complaint as the national day for working women.

So were there any threats involved while writing it? I.e. you talked about the bureaucratic brick while writing Taboo.

No, because it came out as a surprise for everyone. People were aware of the theme but not the exact plot or that it’s even an autobiographical account.

You’ve been working as a gender activist since more than two decades, why do you think that feminist struggle is seen negatively, especially in South Asia?

We live in a male dominated society where people come from all aspects of life in which especially women have been subdued and have been made to work in some fields meant only for women.

Moreover, change is not welcomed in our society. Social workers like Edhi whose contributions for the wellbeing of the citizens have been great, are not opposed. But, ours work is different so we face a lot of negativism from people, especially who are a part of the male-dominated society.

Waleed Tariq with Fauzia Saeed

You are heading NIWC and AASHA; can you tell us more about it?

After having declared sexual harassment as a crime, we dissolved AASHA (Alliance against sexual harassment) on 22nd December’11. Our committee National Implementation Watch Committer (NIWC) is working with the legislators since last two years to ensure the implementation of declaration of sexual harassment which was announced in March, 2010.

There are many challenges for women in Pakistan. How do you evaluate women’s rights in the country today?

We still have to go far away than where we are today and I believe that pleasure always come from pain. Change is the solution to the problem.

You’ve achieved so much and many people look upon you as an ideal. Do you have a real life hero who has inspired you, be it personal or professional?

In the activist circles, I take I.A. Rehman as my mentor. He is an institution in itself. Another figure I adore is Raza Rabbani who has always been behind the screen. He is a source of motivation for me.

In my personal life, my husband Paul, without whose help I couldn’t have done and got the courage of doing what I am doing right now.

Do you have any message for our readers/masses?

Read my book ‘Working with Sharks’ which has been recently published. Also create more space for women to stand up and raise their voice.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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