Ammara Ahmad: Polio workers are being attacked all over Pakistan. Will that affect the polio campaign in Punjab?
Zakia Shahnawaz: I don’t know why people are against polio drops. They think polio vaccination is haram.
Anything can happen anywhere, but Punjab is generally safer because of the chief minister’s strict security controls. Polio workers shouldn’t be sent to areas that are insecure, but if they are, they should be given security.
AA: But do you have a plan?
ZS: It hasn’t come to that level in Punjab. I think we can manage. We don’t have that many cases of polio in Punjab. I think there were a few in Sheikhupura, six or seven cases. But there shouldn’t have been any at all. The entire world is polio-free, except two counties which include Pakistan. We have to make our country polio-free.
[quote]I put on the burka in the plane, because my father would have been very upset if he saw me without it [/quote]
AA: Pakistan is also perhaps the fastest growing population in the world. Do you see that as a challenge?
ZS: Population growth is the most significant problem facing Punjab. Pakistan is the 6th most populated country in the world. That creates challenges in mother and child care, healthcare, and provision of clean drinking water.
AA: Is religion a problem in population control?
ZS: I don’t think it is a religious problem. Religious problems are created by some fanatics. But a majority of Muslim scholars and intellectuals understand these issues and are not against population control.
AA: You grew up in a conservative family
ZS: Yes, I am from Mianwali. It is a conservative town and my father was very particular about pardah. I used to wear a burka and we were not allowed to go out without it. I never went to college and got married when I was 16.
My husband was studying in England. He took me to England, and that is where I took off the burka. When I came back to Pakistan, I had a little daughter. I put on the burka in the plane because my father was there at the airport to receive me, and he would have been very upset had he seen me without it.
I lifted the veil but I had a chador. And now the chador has disappeared with age. I had thought about how I could not go to college and did not become a specialist or expert in any particular field, and decided to do something for the poor people of my area. That is how I started in politics.
My husband was supportive. My father and husband were both feudal lords, but they wanted me to help the poor.
[quote]We will stop getting contraceptives from the US in September[/quote]
AA: And you joined the PML-N?
ZS: At first I worked independently but then I joined the Muslim League in 1985. I was attracted to the party because of its name. It was the name of the Quaid’s party.
At that time, Benazir Bhutto was not in Pakistan. She had boycotted the 1985 elections and was not active in politics.
AA: How does being a woman affect your politics?
ZS: I have always felt very comfortable. It depends on where you come from. If your background is strong and you have family support, then people know how to treat you. But otherwise, girls do face a lot of difficulties in their professions, and in their lives.
AA: Did you ever go to jail?
ZS: I have not been to jail. I opposed the 1999 coup and the dictatorship that followed, and I supported the chief justice later on, but my protests were within limits. They did not involve setting things on fire or damaging property, that would get me arrested. My politics are like Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He did not go to jail.
I was not a key leader of the party anyway. I was the general secretary of the Women’s Wing. We wanted to tour Punjab and keep our struggle alive, and not get locked up in a cell.
AA: Will the Danish School project work out?
ZS: When Nawaz Sharif was building the motorway, everyone criticized the project. But today, we have better roads all over the country. That is what the Danish School project will do.
Shahbaz Sharif thought of this project for the poor to get quality education. People say the rich are getting richer and the poor are not being given opportunities, but when you start a project for the underprivileged, the media begins to criticize you. People are never happy. But when you do something good for Pakistan with a good intention, things work out. They work out for the better. The government is not worried about making profits with Danish schools, it is concerned about education.
AA: About contraceptives, are they easily available in Pakistan?
ZS: Right now we get contraceptives from the US. But that will stop in September. Then we will have to provide our own contraceptives. That will be a big blow to our program. There is no local production. They say there was one factory, but it shut down. I think we need to seriously start thinking about encouraging the private sector to produce contraceptives. How long can we keep importing them?
AA: What are the targets that you want to meet during your tenure?
ZS: We are revising our policies and strategies after looking at how other countries control their population, especially Muslim countries. We want to work on raising awareness, taking clerics on board, easy access to medication, assistance in health clinics, making contraceptives available door-to-door, and encouraging spacing between children. According to Sharia, a mother must feed her child for two years. That implies spacing.
We have to make people aware of the incentives, such as better mother and child health, and that the parents could afford to send them to school, ensuring better livelihood.
Education helps change trends. Girls who get educated marry late, and that automatically delays children.