Pakistan is the world’s sixth most populous country, yet has long held one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. Ali spoke at the Wilson Center last fall about strategies to better engage faith-based organizations on maternal and child health issues. In this interview with ECSP, she stressed that despite Pakistan’s very religious society, these interventions are possible with the right messaging.
PAIMAN aims to reach vulnerable and isolated groups, including poor, rural, or conservative women. “The areas where no one can reach [are] where we targeted,” Ali said.
In these areas, ulama – influential religious leaders and scholars – are highly trusted. “It was not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Ali emphasized. “Religious leaders are not technical people, but they are experts in their own field. You have to approach them with trust and respect.”
“The first step is establishing rapport with them; then they listen to you,” said Ali. This is best done through another alim, not a technical person. Those ulama that were approachable proved to be valuable allies in the promotion of maternal health. PAIMAN has reached over 35 million people in Pakistan over its now eight-year run.
Projects like PAIMAN are necessary in areas of the world where religious leaders are the most respected community authorities. In Pakistan, Ali believes that now that this strategy has been demonstrated to be viable, the government should help bring it to scale. An NGO-funded project ends, but a government-funded program has much more continuity, which in turn helps build trust with local leaders, she said.