In May last year, Nargis Shirazi met for the first time, Melinda Gates, wife to Bill Gates, at the “Women Deliver” conference in Malaysia. “Women Deliver”, is a global advocacy organisation that brings together voices from around the world to call for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women.
“There were nine of us that met Melinda, out of 100. She took time to listen to us all, one by one. We shared our stories and hopes. It was unbelievable. Her passion for people humbled me,” Shirazi recollects.
Gates was blown away by Shirazi’s innovative and creative approach to get young people in Uganda talking about taboo topics like sex. Shirazi felt the need to talk about these things because during her first year at university, many of her friends got pregnant and had to leave school.
“I realised then, that people’s inability to talk about issues having to do with sex and contraception could change the course of girls’ lives forever,” she says.
So she wrote a play about a man who gets pregnant that got people to think differently about traditional gender roles. Shirazi realised the power that drama had, to address taboo subjects, so she created a project that encouraged young people in poor communities to write their own plays to address the issues they care about. It was these efforts that Gates applauded and recognised Shirazi as one of the most inspiring women she met in 2013. It was a big day and moment for her.
“I remember her highlighting my work during her plenary speech at the recently concluded family planning summit in Addis Ababa that attracted over 3,000 people from all over the world. As she showed my pictures and talked about the play we staged here in Kampala, my heart melted,” she recounts, with glee.
“I am proud to be one of the young leaders under ‘Women Deliver’. It has helped me shape my professional and personal life,” she says.
Shirazi is co-founder of Wo-man Foundation which she formed in November 2012 with Amos Zikussoka and Dr William Lubega. Wo-man is a not-for-profit organisation that works with youth on sexual reproductive health and rights education.
She explains that this organisation is made up of young, passionate, and creative people whose focus is empowering youth with skills and opportunities to not only change their lives, but the lives of others.
“Wo-man provides sexual education in a creative and arts entertainment fashion that challenges behaviour and the status quo,” the 29-year-old says. The organisation does this through research, education, advocacy, and forming coalitions to promote health.
Shirazi says she realised that sometimes, all it takes is passion and love for their people to inspire and move people to embrace change. The reproductive health activist knows pretty well that leadership is not about being in the lead but about inspiring others to lead their own communities.
She adds, “I learnt from Melinda Gates that success is not about an individual, it is about a community. It is about replicating one’s success to benefit a thousand more people.”
Shirazi keeps this on top of her agenda at Wo-man whose belief is a world where women and men work together for health and development and in nurturing the dreams of the youth to empower them to lead their communities as a way of bringing change.
The organisation has a team of four: Steven Twinomugisha as graphics designer, Sharon Atim as community based coordinator and William Lubega as the medical expert. Shirazi is the business developer, lead director and community health specialist.
One of their achievements has been providing reusable pads and panties to less fortunate girls and women and frequent education on family planning. They achieved this in partnership with Ex-Foundation, a group of young men and women determined to bring about sustainable prison reform in Uganda.
“Our most recent partnership was with the ministry of health on the Fresh social media platform. The foundation set up the online social media platform, and the campaign was launched at the family planning stakeholders meeting in December last year, by the Minister of Primary Health Care, Sarah Opendi and Marie Stopes country director, Deepmala Malha,” Shirazi further explains.
The foundation is now working on a project under which students can discuss sexual and reproductive health issues, myths and misconceptions and how youth can stop teenage pregnancies and reduce maternal deaths.
Shirazi began thinking up all these ideas in 2011, when she was a Global Health Corps fellow, with UNDP Millennium Villages Project.
“It is there that I dreamt of starting the foundation, based on my rural experiences at household level with girls and women. I wondered why adults aged 40 and above worked with youth when the youth themselves that are transformed can help transform and impact the lives of fellow youth,” she argues.
She also noticed how adults dealt with issues to do with sex. “It was always abstinence and no talk of condom use. There was never an opportunity for a young person to ask about teenage pregnancy or abortions. But even though this talk was taboo, girls still fell pregnant and went to the witchdoctors or quack clinics to perform abortions that either led to death of the mother or a psychological scar on a teenage girl for life,” she adds.
Shirazi says it is understandable that people do not talk about sex with their children easily because of our cultural context.
She adds, “We are very conservative in nature and parents would rather believe that their children are not having sex. Religion is also another issue – abstinence and nothing else. So young people prefer to have sex behind closed doors. Sex is also a subject parents believe is the responsibility of the teachers in schools.”
She says that it is interesting to see that when a girl becomes pregnant she is chased from school yet the boy is left to complete their education.
What also baffles her is how common it is to have girls married off at a young age and there is no questioning it.
From the Cambodian love huts to the Ugandan rural areas she says the story is the same.
“Some cultures do not permit youth to ask about sex. When they go to pharmacies to buy condoms they are often given a lecture about how ‘spoilt’ they are. While growing up, some girls are told not to ‘tamper with snakes’. Sex is never talked about openly in the belief that this will stop the youth from engaging in early sex or unprotected sex,” she adds.
“Whether we believe it or not, we need to talk about sexual and reproductive health with the youth. Not just about abstinence, but even about contraceptives,” she states.
Shiraz believes men should be heavily involved in family planning. As such, she wrote a play, titled The Twist that was staged at the National Theatre in June last year.
It was presented in a comedy style yet the subjects tackled therein were serious. Theatre-goers were tickled to think about taboos regarding sex. It was acted and directed by students from International Health Sciences University (IHSU). They are now working on another play.
“My power is my voice, my voice is my power, and my move to action is change. At the moment I am working on a project at IHSU. I am also working on building the Wo-man Foundation with my team,” she spells out her wish list.
Shirazi is certainly a believer that passion about the right things can change the world.
AWAY FROM WORK
Shirazi is a born-again Christian with a Muslim background. She is a Ugandan of Kenyan-Iranian origin, born and raised in Mombasa.
Her family moved to Uganda and she attended Makerere College School for O-Level and Gayaza High School for A-Level.