Breaking Taboos with Technology

Feminism and gender issues CrossCulture Programme

The death of a female Pakistani social media activist prompted then journalist Saba Khalid to start her mission to empower girls and young women in Pakistan. In 2017, she founded her start-up Aurat Raaj which informs about reproductive health and hygiene through online counseling. In the interview Saba Khalid talks with Juliane Pfordte for the ifa about the app Raaji and the challenges in reaching its target group in rural areas.

ifa: Saba, in 2017, you founded Aurat Raaj, a start-up and digital content platform that advocates for women's empowerment in Pakistan. Was there a particular incident that encouraged you?

Saba Khalid: It was a personal and a social concern. At that time, I took an inventory of my life: Was I really doing the things I wanted? Was I really making a change within my country? I was a journalist and a consultant for advertising companies. But it didn't feel right anymore. In addition, I was investigating a story about Qandeel Baloch, a social media activist who had been honour killed by her brother. Being very active on Facebook myself, I was shocked how many women thought she deserved it for exposing her body online. So, I started to write stories about empowered Pakistani women and female entrepreneurs to show young girls that another life, besides early marriage and children, is possible.

ifa: The platform also screened an animated series about Raaji, a woman who survived a so-called 'honour killing'. Why did you opt for animated videos?

Khalid: I knew that the topics I wanted to address such as harassment, child marriage and reproductive health wouldn't be well received by a large majority in Pakistan. Animation allowed me to address taboo topics without putting myself at risk. Many activists had died and my parents were scared about my safety. Besides, the combination of education and entertainment allowed me to connect with younger girls who usually like animated videos.

ifa: Raaji was also the basis for the homonymous chatbot app that you created. How did you come up with this idea?

Khalid: When we screened the series in schools and community centres, I realised how much the girls wanted to talk and learn about health issues. Women and girls in Pakistan are culturally shamed for natural body processes; many girls lack education on menstruation and birth control. A lot of girls asked for advice and mentorship. One day I thought, what if I create a version of myself that could help all of them, 24/7 and from anywhere? I consulted on this idea with my co-founder, and he suggested using artificial intelligence (AI).

About Saba Khalid

Saba Khalid was working as a journalist before she founded her start-up Aurat Raaj in 2017 which works for the empowerment of girls and young women in Pakistan. She was a fellow of the CrossCulture Programme in 2012; in 2019 she joined the CCP workshop 'Digital Civil Society' in Berlin as an experienced alumna.

AI supported by human experts

ifa: The app was released on Google Play Store at the beginning of 2019. Could you briefly introduce Raaji? How does it work?

Khalid: Raaji is an AI-infused chatbot with speech and voice recognition. It mainly answers questions on harassment and menstrual health and is supported by human experts such as gynaecologists, psychologists and lawyers. In case of an urgent need, the chatbot forwards the query to the right expert who takes over the conversation.

ifa: You mentioned that Raaji mainly addresses taboo topics. How do you encourage girls to use the app?

Khalid: I actually had to change my approach several times. After I had created the app, I noticed that younger girls often share their mobile phones with their sister or mother. We saw that someone downloaded the app and deleted it right away because they didn't want their questions to be seen. We then toured around Pakistan bringing Raaji into the classrooms and explaining the app. The girls really liked it as it was a play-based learning tool outside of the traditional teaching methods. So, by bringing information and communications technology into the schools, we promoted digital inclusion as well.

ifa: Speaking of inclusion, if we look at the Internet penetration rates in Pakistan the urban-rural divide still remains, even if government initiatives to provide access to remote areas have progressed in recent years. How do you reach girls in rural areas?

Khalid: We launched a specific campaign for girls in remote communities across Pakistan. We went there with our laptops, carrying our own Internet, so that the girls could have a conversation with Raaji. We were lucky to have the support of UNESCO and UNICEF. They were our door opener because you cannot go there and say 'Hi, I'm going to talk about menstrual hygiene in your school.' These rural communities are very traditional-minded. Unfortunately, there were other challenges that made it impossible for us to focus on rural areas.

ifa: For example?

Khalid: It wasn't only the language barrier—we had to adapt the app to Sindhi and other local languages—it was also the logistical part. We had to travel about seven or eight hours which is unsafe and exhausting. But I hope that in five years we will be able to reach girls in rural areas, too. Currently, we focus on schools in urban areas that are willing to pay for the app. We actually took the app off the Google Play Store as we had to build a business model around it. We didn't want to become a non-profit organisation because they have a very negative reputation in Pakistan. A lot of donors' money has been used in an inefficient way.

People start taking us seriously

ifa: Aurat Raaj received several international awards. How was your start-up received and supported in Pakistan?

Khalid: We don't receive real support in Pakistan. Aurat Raaj is a woman-led start-up within a patriarchal society. Corporates usually have problems with our name and want us to change it. Aurat Raaj means 'women rulers'; it is based on a feminist, satirical film from the 1970s that imagines a world where women and men switch roles. I often let go off good corporate sponsorship deals because I don't want to give up my entrepreneurial independence. But thanks to international recognitions people have started to take us seriously.

ifa: What about support by the government?

Khalid: They have no interest in supporting us. Besides, I am often reluctant to work with them myself. For example, in a recent case of harassment, the local government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa distributed burqas to 'protect' women and girls. The origin of harassment still lies in women. These backlashes upset me, but I guess at some point it will be necessary to partner with the government and get them to promote the app in schools and community centres.

ifa: Digital transformation is probably one of the greatest changes of our lives after the industrial revolution. Would you generally say that the increasing use of digital technology facilitates social inclusion or hinders it?

Khalid: Being an optimist, I'd say that digital technology is an opportunity, especially for women's empowerment. For example, the ride-hailing app Careem made travelling more convenient for many Pakistani women in urban areas. They are now able to move without depending on a relative to pick them up. However, digital transformation still hasn't included everyone. Even Aurat Raaj is far from including everyone, for example people with disabilities.

About the CrossCulture Programme

The CrossCulture Programme (CCP) gives 80 fellows from host organisations in Germany or in one of the about 35 partner countries the chance to gain experience in intercultural networks. The goal is to strengthen civil society networks worldwide. CCP was launched in 2005 and counts over 750 alumni.

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Inspiring other women to start own businesses

ifa: How would you describe your personal vision of the future?

Khalid: I think expansion is the right word—expansion of mindset and expansion of the work that I'm doing. I really want to focus on including women in rural areas and slums; in the long run, maybe people with specific needs as well. And I don't have to do everything myself. I can inspire other women to start their own business and work on these important problems.

ifa: Are you planning to expand to other countries as well?

Khalid: I am currently exploring to what extent Raaji is transferable to other countries and cultures. When I attended the International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi, I heard about a girl who committed suicide because of period shaming. This was so reminiscent of what is happening in Pakistan that it made me think of expanding to African countries as well. Also, the ifa workshop on digital civil society gave me new ideas. One Egyptian participant told me that his country lacks health innovations for women. Since he works with start-ups, I will probably cooperate with him as well.

ifa: What other ideas and contacts from the ifa workshop are you taking with you that might benefit your work?

Khalid: It would be great to work with some of the CorrelAid data scientists. I am thinking about an interactive map that visualises health and sanitation facilities for women in the communities and slums of Pakistan. I want to learn how innovation is happening in other places and how we can spread that mindset of innovation. If there is one thing I have learned over the past years, it is that mindset is crucial and that failure is part of doing innovative things.

Interview by Juliane Pfordte

This interview was originally published on the website of the ifa Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (05.03.2020).

May 2020

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