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Awareness isn’t enough: Salman Sufi on fighting gender inequality and more

Salman Sufi is an award-winning public policy and development specialist working to battle gender inequality in Pakistan.

He has introduced dozens of historic reforms to counter gender inequality and change the lives of women today. His achievements include establishing the Punjab Women Protection Authority, introducing women’s rights in school curricula, as well as successfully launching the Women-on-Wheels initiative providing girls an opportunity to ride motorbikes in Pakistan.

We spoke to the gender reforms specialist to find out what fighting gender equality in Pakistan really entails.  

MM: You have been a driving force behind several gender equality initiatives. What motivated you to fight for women’s equality?

Salman Sufi: Lack of mobility is the biggest concern shared by almost all of the female colleagues I have ever worked with. Similarly, I have always been perceptive towards the struggles of the female members of my family. Only the willfully ignorant don’t know what exactly is happening. Therefore, awareness or sympathising wasn’t enough for me and I started working on projects with the potential to bring real change.

MM: What led you to establish the Punjab Women Protection Authority, and how successful has it been in reducing incidents of domestic violence?

Salman Sufi: A brainstorming session between my team and I led to the establishment of the PWPA, allowing us to make Pakistan’s first Violence Against Women Centre in Multan. Being a one-stop establishment housing police, medico-legal centre, prosecution, mediation, and rehabilitation department, our aim is to provide survivors of domestic abuse ease, shelter, and civil remedies in difficult times. The centre acts as a  refuge for hundreds of women in Punjab. Our first VAWC is functional in Multan with the second VAWC and the first one in Sindh to be opened soon.

MM: Do you feel that women experience the world differently in Pakistan, if so, how can we change our attitudes and beliefs towards gender roles?

Salman Sufi: Pakistan for women is a totally different experience as compared to men. From the most basic needs like mobility to actually holding political office, everything is marred with more hurdles and hostility. Mostly because it is accepted as a norm or blamed on religion. With an impactful educational awareness campaign, so many of the misconceptions that misinform us can be cleared out. That is why with every project, we specifically focus on mainstreaming it to the masses.

MM: You were hired as an adviser on gender reforms in Sindh. How has been your experience working with the Sindh government?

Salman Sufi: My experience has been very invigorating so far. Be it the Chief Minister’s office or the Women Development Department, we have always been supported and accommodated by the Sindh government. Bilawal Bhutto and Sherry Rehman are also the first to tweet about our projects, raising awareness. From Women on Wheels to Saaf Bath project to the Violence Against Women Centre, the government of Sindh wants to change and is willing to put in the work for it which is always encouraging.

MM: It is rare for women to ride motorbikes in Pakistan. You launched the ‘Women on Wheels’ initiative. Has it helped change perceptions and end social barriers?

Salman Sufi: So many women come up to me to share their experiences about how after the training they manage to contribute towards the household and better the lives of the people they love. One of our trainees even managed to take her husband to the hospital on the bike while he was critical. When families see that their daughters are becoming independent and resourceful they are also more willing to offer their support. With patience and perseverance, a lot can be changed!

MM: You are hailed as a champion of women’s rights? Do you think men can be feminists?

Salman Sufi: Whoever beliefs in equality, justice, and social welfare is a feminist.

MM: What according to you has been your biggest achievement so far?

Salman Sufi: Whenever I see a girl ride a bike on the road it brings me a lot of joy. It also motivates me to keep going. Another moment of pride was when the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act was passed. With constitutional support, on-ground change becomes more achievable.

MM: What are you currently working on?

Salman Sufi: We are currently working on many new projects such as Saaf Bath which is to be launched after Eid. Under Saaf Bath we will be establishing state-of-the-art public toilets in the busiest of nooks in Pakistan to provide people, especially women, access to safe sanitation, in light of Covid-19. Similarly, we are focusing on ensuring that COVID-19 patients have access to oxygen cylinders by getting them directly connected to suppliers to avoid price hikes and hoarding. We will also be focusing on our initiative Safe Campus to ensure that university and school administrations take on-campus sexual harassment more seriously with better accountability and introduction of SOPs.

MM: What kind of society would like to envision in Pakistan?

Salman Sufi: A compassionate society where those who enjoy any privilege consider it their duty to help those who do not. If we won’t change our fate, no one will.

MM: Your message to men who don’t believe in gender equality and suppress the rights of women.

Salman Sufi: Our message is universal and simple to understand: men and women are equal. For those who do not understand choose not to do so. We will keep doing our best because the women of Pakistan deserve nothing less.

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