Joshua Dilawar is one of six leaders from different countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who received $10,000 to lead innovative programs with potential to drive major breakthroughs in reproductive health. The awards are part of the 2021 Ingenuity Fund, developed by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health (Gates Institute) and supported by Pathfinder International and Bayer. Joshua is the founder of the Institute for Social and Youth Development in Pakistan.
Why do you focus your work on sexual and reproductive health and rights?
Years ago, I had a friend who passed away in childbirth. She had gone to a small hospital, which didn’t have proper services or equipment. It was traumatic. I talked to the doctors and came to know about multiple factors and challenges to health and well-being in our society. I learned that sexual and reproductive health is largely stigmatized in Pakistan and really needs to be worked on. I thought I should work on it. Maybe I couldn’t help thousands… but I could help a few. I could spread awareness about the need for proper medical equipment and services and sensitize the community.
Reproductive health is quite important in Pakistan because there are numerous obstacles that prohibit many women and young people from exercising their rights. There are still significant gaps in service delivery and policies that limit access to basic medical facilities. Denying these rights has serious repercussions that make inequality and poverty worse. The risk of unwanted pregnancies, maternal deaths, harmful cultural practices, and sexual and gender-based violence may increase as a result of these gaps and policies.
In 2012, I attended a workshop on how to promote Interfaith harmony between different religious groups, using theatre and music. After attending, I realized that this is the sector I belong to! After that training, I started working with that theatre group in my own religious minority group and other communities. I also conducted theatre performances on awareness of gender equality and HIV & AIDS prevention, in the ‘redlight” areas, with sex workers.
I believe artistic mediums are quite impactful, therefore, I got into my particular approach using theatre and arts for awareness, advocacy, information, and education. Today, through these experiences, I combine a creative approach, based in theatre and other forms of arts, with my passion for reproductive health and rights.
Tell us about your work and your upcoming project.
I initiated the Institute for Social and Youth Development (ISYD) in 2017. I also started the International Youth Forum in Pakistan in 2019, which is now an annual flagship event of ISYD Pakistan, with a specific focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights and family planning. I’m also a National Focal Point of YPEER Pakistan, Lead of the Pakistan Advocacy Network, and member of the Prime Minister’s National Youth Council. I’m also working on life skills based education around gender equality, youth empowerment, climate change, minority rights, peace, and security.
For my project with the Ingenuity Fund, we wanted to determine where there were gaps in this landscape, and who was being left behind in sexual and reproductive health education. We realized that while there are some services and education for those with specific disabilities – mainly, people restricted to wheelchairs – there were no services for deaf, mute, and visually impaired people. Under this project, we are focusing on deaf and hard-of-hearing young people. In Pakistan, we have little to no services for deaf and hard-of-hearing young people in this sphere.
In December 2021, I conducted a pilot activity, for the very first time in Pakistan I organized a three-day training only with deaf and hard-of-hearing young people. It was fully conducted in sign language focusing on their health and well-being. From this, I initiated this campaign and this project.
Overall, the project will have four parts. First, there will be the comic book. Right now, I’m working on a story. The narrative is around gender equality and reproductive health and rights. This will be a first of its kind in Pakistan.
Second, we will conduct storytelling sessions, including those in sign language. Third, we will organize a provincial capacity-building workshop for deaf and hard-of-hearing young people. We want to build their capacity in the realm of sexual and reproductive health and rights so that they may become young leaders and trainers in their communities to make health decisions for their lives.
Last, we will make a number of animated videos to further our reach. So, it’s a four-pronged approach designed to reach a range of youth, including those with disabilities.
Why is it important for men to do this work?
There is a need for a holistic approach to male engagement in reproductive health. If men and women are perceived as equal partners, effective decision-making and better outcomes in SRHR can be expected.
Numerous programs have tested male engagement in various contexts and found it to be positive in a number of areas, including family planning, HIV prevention, gender equality, girls’ education, birth preparedness, ending gender-based violence, and ending child marriages.
To put it simply, feminism isn’t a fight between men and women. It’s a journey to achieve gender equality and human rights!
Supporting women doesn’t mean you are against men. I feel empowered and inspired when I stand up, and raise my voice, for my sisters, my mother, my female colleagues, and my female friends. I feel like this is my responsibility. We need men to destigmatize this work and approach, and gender equality at large.
What’s your long-term vision for your work?
By 2030, I want to create a safe space for young people, where there is no religious discrimination, and where there is no gender discrimination. Where, they can have a safe space to get information, to raise questions. Along with that, I want to help build the biggest youth network in Pakistan of changemakers leaving no one behind. I want to educate health ambassadors and leaders that are connected to each other.
I want to build an army for an empowered society, where young people have access to their information, services, and their rights.
It is difficult, but not impossible and this is my vision! The more information young people have, the better. I can’t save my friend…but we can save many others like her.