A Conversation with Asifa Khan, Co-founder of Foundation for Awareness and Civic Engagement (FACE) in Okara District, Pakistan
February 9, 2022
Background: Foundation for Awareness and Civic Engagement (FACE) is a not-for-profit and non-partisan civil society organization in Okara district in Punjab province, Pakistan. Asifa Khan, a lawyer by training, co-founded the organization in 2016 with an aim to work for active and responsible citizenship through civic and political education. FACE received a grant from a European Union (EU) funded project, Awareness with Human Actions (AHA!), for their initiative called “Social Media as a Vehicle to Mitigate Conflict and Promote Peaceful Coexistence in Covid-19 Pandemic.” Asifa’s team had commendable success in raising awareness among citizens regarding fake news and disinformation about COVID-19 and its vaccines among marginalized women and girls in Okara. She spoke to Sudipta Roy, WFDD, (by Zoom) on February 9, 2022, about her on-the-ground experience and challenges in peacebuilding, equity for women, and youth leadership work in Pakistan, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic response.
“Girls and younger women face severe restrictions on using internet from their family. With such restrictions and no proper digital literacy, the girls fall prey to fake news and misinformation more easily.”
Sudipta Roy: Thank you for joining me, Asifa. You received a grant for your project called “Social Media as a Vehicle to Mitigate Conflict and Promote Peaceful Coexistence in Covid-19 Pandemic.” Please tell me about yourself and how you got interested in peacebuilding work?
Asifa Khan: I have a law degree and I am a practicing lawyer. I have been working in the social development sector since 2012. I am the cofounder of a not-for-profit and non-partisan civil society organization called “Foundation for Awareness and Civic Engagement (FACE).” The main goal of the organization is to work for active and responsible citizenship through civic and political education. It’s located in Okara district in Punjab. I was born and brought up in Okara. My organization mostly works with marginalized women and girls.
Why did you decide to work with women and girls particularly?
Okara has a large rural population. I come from a conservative rural family. I faced a lot of restrictions to get my law degree. I am the first female university graduate in my whole family. I am a role model in my family and my village. After I got my degree and started practicing, I realized that many more rural girls and young women could do really well if they got support. From there on, I started reaching out to vulnerable girls and women.
You are an inspiration to many people. Do you have a role model who might have inspired you along the way?
Yes, there are many people who inspired me, helped me to become who I am today. But specifically, I was highly inspired by the late Asma Jahangir, Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyer and activist. I wanted to be a lawyer following her footsteps.
She was a champion lawyer and a great inspiration for many indeed. Please tell me about your organization FACE Pakistan. What kind of work do you do?At FACE, we have been working on promoting digital literacy among girls and women for several years now. Online spaces are highly toxic for women. They often face various kinds of harassment there. We have trained more than 1200 female students on digital security and internet freedom. We discuss existing legal frameworks in Pakistan such as the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act that protect their rights.
We have also run youth engagement programs where we raised awareness on the importance of tolerance and peace education. A main component of this program was to train participants on how to use existing social media tools to raise awareness among social media users regarding peace.
Was it part of the AHA! project?
No, it was a different project. For the AHA! project, we raised awareness among girls and women about how to detect fake news and mis/disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines in Okara. We trained 65 women on ‘Social Media as a vehicle to mitigate conflict and promote peaceful coexistence in Covid-19 Pandemic’. The objective of these three-day training sessions with women was to sensitize them that they can counter hate speech and reduce disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on social media. FACE has also disseminated awareness video messages on social media regarding Covid-19.
I am curious to know, why did you decide to focus on hate speech and disinformation particularly?
We wanted to focus on fake news and disinformation in social media because we observed that people were spending a lot of time on these platforms during the lockdown. As the usage time increased, so did the spread of fake news, rumors, and mis/disinformation. There were a lot of misinformation about vaccines as well. We learned from the government of Punjab that they were going to take legal actions against some people for spreading fake news. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority closed more than 4,000 social media pages that they found spreading hate speech. On the other hand, girls and younger women face severe restrictions on using internet from their family. With such restrictions and no proper digital literacy, the girls fall prey to fake news and misinformation more easily. These are the main reasons why we decided to work on media literacy and positive messaging activities part of the AHA! project.
We selected two separate groups of women for our AHA! campaign. The first group is called “Women Peace Champions.” We selected 30 participants between age 18 and 35 from universities and colleges in Okara. We trained them on peace education, effective role of social media for peaceful coexistence, sustainable peace-making dialogue, community leadership, and women’s role in combating hate speech. The other group is called “Women for Peace” and comprised of from different segments of societies, including communities, women religious leaders, CSOs representatives, lawyers, social political activists, human rights activists, and youth-led groups.
We also developed a guidebook for the participants that covered how they could use social media as a tool to promote peace, and what legal tools are available to report the hate speech spreader on social media, under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, as I mentioned before. Like Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, and Citizens Protection (against Online Harms) Rules 2020. Our session on digital security discussed different available digital security tools to protect women and girls’ digital security and free and safe use of social media.
After receiving training from us, both groups mobilized among their communities and disseminated positive messages. Both groups organized at least 15 sessions involving more than 300 women from all spheres of the society.
Asifa, you worked very closely with marginalized girls and women during the pandemic. How did the pandemic affect women and girls in your community?
The COVID-19 pandemic affected women and girls in complex ways. Working rural women either lost their jobs or their income was cut due to the lockdown. Girls stayed home because schools were closed. Many got married or dropped out of school. Gender based violence increased quite a bit. The social media space became hostile against women and girls as well.
When vaccination started in Pakistan, how did local women and girls respond to vaccination?
I found serious awareness gaps among rural women regarding vaccines. It’s very difficult to convince people about the importance of vaccines if people are not aware of what a vaccine is, how it works, and why it needs to be done regularly and more than once. There is a bureaucratic obstacle too that created an extra layer of vaccine hesitancy—requirement of the national ID cards in order for anybody to register for an inoculation. A majority of the rural women do not either have a card or lost it. This policy created a lot of backlashes particularly among the rural women. But then the government relaxed the policy and asked that women could get vaccinated by using their blood relative's identity card--like her father or brother's ID card.
You are a mother yourself. I saw on the event photos that you were conducting several training sessions and other outreach activities carrying your young child on the lap. It must have been challenging. What other challenges did you face during your work part of the AHA! project?
Finding reliable childcare was really tough during the pandemic. But my colleagues and teammates always have been very supportive. It was also very difficult to conduct in-person training sessions in the middle of the pandemic. We couldn’t rent a conference venue at a hotel for the training sessions. We had to divide our teams into small groups and then conduct the training following COVID-19 safety protocols at our office premise. In a way it worked out because women were reluctant to attend training sessions at a hotel due to social taboo associated with hotels. For our three-days long trainings, we had to do a lot of convincing at various levels because this concept did not exist in the local area. We involved the University of Okara management and the District Bar Association to ensure legitimacy of our work. People were more sensitive because we were working with girls and women.
I remember when I first started working, my family members were quite uncomfortable about the fact that I will be working with men. Till then, I only interacted with women—had gone to women schools and colleges. I was the first mover in my family, so, I had to work harder to gain trust. Slowly, my parents understood that this is the way of the world that both men and women can work outside. I proved that it is possible to work with dignity as a woman. My younger sister did not have to put up a fight like I had to! She works in the media now. She is a news anchor. So, ultimately, building trust of your family and community is the key.
You have done commendable work for and with your community as part of the AHA! project. What’s next? How do you plan to sustain the networks of the peace champions and the women for peace in the coming days?
The FACE team plans to be in touch with the girls and women who have received trainings from us. We plan to meet on a quarterly basis and democratically decide how we should move forward. You know that we will need continuous support to sustain any progress. We will make sure to engage these girls and women in our future work in any capacity that is mutually beneficial.
Do you have any suggestions or message for the AHA! team?
If there is any way, please extend the project! AHA! was a very timely project and we have achieved a lot despite all the challenges. But we just got started and would like to continue to engage girls and women in peacebuilding activities in the context of the pandemic and beyond.
Thank you very much for your time. It was great pleasure to learn more about your inspiring story and excellent work. I wish you all the best.
Thank you very much, Sudipta.