Women are without a doubt their own greatest champions, but many men are also lending their support to the cause of gender equality. You! has started a new segment – ‘He for She’. The section carries interviews of successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, doctors, architects, writers, artists, activists, producers, and directors etc. – who believe in gender equality and are supporting women in whatever way they can. This week we are featuring Omer Aftab, an activist and CEO of Pink Ribbon. In an exclusive interview with You! Omer Aftab talks about the kind of work his organisation is doing for women…
he for she
You! What is Pink Ribbon Pakistan?
Omer Aftab: Started in 2004, Pink Ribbon Pakistan is an organisation dedicatedly working on breast cancer. The whole concept of Pink Ribbon for so many years has been creating awareness about breast cancer; about self-examination, early detection, and saving lives. With early diagnosis survival chances increase up to 90 per cent in breast cancer. Our goal is to reduce breast cancer prevalence in the country.
You! Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, what is the theme for this year?
OA: The theme of this year is ‘Become a Better You’. We are encouraging people to adopt a healthy lifestyle as it lowers the risk of breast cancer by 40 per cent. With more women taking care of their health and well-being, we can achieve improved prevention, diagnosis, and treatment rates of breast cancer in Pakistan.
You! What motivated you to start Pink Ribbon Pakistan?
OA: I was an activist even in my school days. I was always up for volunteering and civic-engagement activities. I got the chance to join my father’s business at a very early age which gave me the resources to materialise my activism. One of my colleagues was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during her treatment process, she realised the need to do something about breast cancer to facilitate patients. She started this idea and asked me to help her shape this initiative, I assisted her for 2-3 years for the campaign. She had a recurrence and could not survive. By that time, I was quite involved and then took forward this initiative.
You! Did you face any difficulties while establishing Pink Ribbon Pakistan?
OA: We are a patriarchal society, so anything to do with women becomes controversial. For almost the initial ten years, talking about this issue remained a challenge. In 2004 when we did our launch event, TV channels refused to highlight the issue. In the initial days, we wanted to start a Youth Awareness Programme to educate students on breast cancer, even the progressive institutes refused to hold breast cancer awareness sessions on all campuses. However, we have been able to bring this issue to the national health agenda.
You! What are your views on gender equality?
OA: Gender equality is a far-fetched statement for a country like ours. Right now, we are fighting against the menace of ending violence against women. We witness cases of discrimination, domestic violence, and abuse daily. Gender inequality is a lifecycle approach, starting from the birth of a girl to her upbringing, education and career choices; there is discrimination at every level.
You! How can we stop gender inequality?
OA: We can stop gender inequality by simply turning inequality into equality, and this can only be done if everyone plays their role in it. Parents, siblings, life partners, teachers, friends, employers, and colleagues, everybody has a role to ensure equal rights and equal treatment for women. Secondly, gender equality must be a top priority because we cannot progress while fifty per cent of our overall population is neglected. We need to bring girls and women into mainstream development for the overall welfare of society.
You! You initiated White Ribbon Campaign in Pakistan; what are its propositions?
OA: When we were working on women’s health and the issue of breast cancer, we realised that decisions on women’s health are made by men. We saw many cases where women were not allowed to visit a doctor to get themselves checked. From there we started thinking about developing something to address the issue of gender inequality and violence against women. After a lot of deliberation, we came up with the idea of initiating something to engage men.
Initially when we used to hold focus group discussions and we used to go to men to talk about violence against women they used to question us why we are asking women-related questions from them and we had to make them understand that we want to address the perpetrator and not the victim. That’s how we engaged boys and men to advocate the rights and empowerment of women.
You! What are some of your projects related to breast cancer awareness campaign?
OA: We conduct Youth Awareness Programme, Workplace Wellness Programme, and PINKtober Campaign. To reach out to people at the grass root level, we collaborated with the Lady Health Worker Programme and incorporated a chapter on breast cancer in their training Programme. The media has played a very positive role in breast cancer awareness. We are thankful to PTA for using breast cancer awareness messages as their ringtone for the past few years, which is an excellent source of information and motivation for all.
You! Can you tell us a bit about first breast cancer hospital in Lahore?
OA: Pink Ribbon is building Pakistan’s first dedicated breast cancer hospital. It is a specialised hospital and will only cater to breast cancer patients. The idea is to provide all facilities under one roof. Many existing breast cancer facilities have diagnostics but not surgery and some have surgery but not oncology. So, this hospital will have all treatment facilities under one roof and serve as a model centre, with state-of-the-art facilities. It will be a research centre and we will also be providing psychological counselling. It is worth mentioning that the hospital will have female staff for all services to address cultural issues and ease of treatment.
The generation of funds is a volunteer-driven activity and public philanthropy and we haven’t taken a single rupee from any international donors.
You! What do you think are some of the greatest obstacles women in Pakistan face?
OA: Starting from their household, friends, and community, they are made to live within boundaries, and since they never get that confidence, they face inequality, injustice, and abuse.
You! What advice would you give to women in Pakistan?
OA: Sometimes it is tiring to be discriminated even by your own family so when you feel like surrendering to gender biases, don’t give up. Stay strong. And stay aware of your health needs.
You! What does a typical day look like for you?
OA: Overall it’s all work, work, and work. My day starts at 08:00 AM sharp and then it’s a long working day. On one end, I am pursuing my passion for women’s health and gender equality and with that I am also running my family business. (I would like to consider myself a social entrepreneur). With the Pink Ribbon Hospital, recent years have been packed with extreme engagements. I have not been able to travel much lately.
You! How do you unwind?
OA: I am a workaholic but Sundays are strictly off. Brunching with family, hanging out with friends and spending part of the day gardening.
You! What is your most treasured possession?
OA: My family and friends are my most treasured possessions.
You! What’s next?
OA: Pink Ribbon Hospital Lahore is almost 60 per cent complete. We will be soon replicating it in Islamabad and Karachi.