A guiding light for women’s reproductive and sexual health rights – The story of Laraib Abid
Updated: Apr 17, 2021
By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab
‘Mashal’ means ‘light’ in Arabic; and that is precisely what Laraib Abid is to many young women and men in Pakistan. Her social enterprise, Mashal, has transformed her into a guiding light for all searching for answers and information related to sexual and reproductive health.
Laraib grew up in a family of doctors. Whenever she had any question relating to health, she could rely on her family members for accurate information and advice. When she grew older, a chance conversation with a close friend made her realize that this was not the case for everyone. Her friend – already a mother of two – was not ready to have another child and unsure what to do.
"Haven't you spoken to a doctor about this? Have you looked on Google? Did you call a telehealth service?” Laraib asked her friend. But her friend did not know which information source was trustworthy, which health services were safe and would allow for anonymity, or what type of doctor could help her. She was lost.
"I was shocked, but I also thought why can't I just create a platform to provide all these things: the content, the telehealth services and the doctors' clinics?" said Laraib.
“I still have this chat history. I go back to it often because this has been my inspiration."
That was the start of Mashal.
Mashal's mission is to advocate for equal rights in society, using technology, mentorship, workshops, and volunteer opportunities to inspire and educate women and men. The organization works on women's empowerment focusing on reproductive health and rights, and meaningful youth engagement.
Laraib believes the link between reproductive and sexual health rights and women's empowerment is an obvious but neglected reality.
"People do not realize that family planning creates freedom," Laraib said.
"If you bring up a girl, tell her that this reproductive right is not yours, then she is less likely to work professionally or utilize her skills, and she might run into medical problems from having kids in quick succession."
By far, Mashal's most impactful venture has been their flagship mobile application, Bridge the Gap . The application provides easy access to up-to-date information on sexual and reproductive health and connects users with free telehealth services and free local clinics. The app can be used anonymously, so users can make informed and private decisions related to family planning that will fit with their goals and dreams in life.
"Bridge the Gap, is about bridging a gap, reaching those who don't ordinarily have access to information like this. Imagine how many young leaders we have [denied] an opportunity [due to being unable to access information]" she said.
Despite the societal stigma surrounding reproductive and sexual health, Mashal and Bridge the Gap have gone from strength to strength, clearly meeting a demand in society and the market.
Mashal was one of ten youth-led social enterprises in Pakistan that won a grant to scale their innovative solutions to SDG challenges as part of the ‘Impact Link: Social Enterprise Challenge 2020’. The event was a collaboration between Youth Co: Lab (an initiative co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation), the Social Enterprise Academy (SEA) Pakistan (powered by SEED), the Scottish Government and delivered by UNDP Pakistan, Social Enterprise Academy Pakistan and DEMO.
Laraib involvement in events and engagement with mentors and organizations have helped her market Mashal and introduced her to a network of like-minded entrepreneurs and investors.
During the past two years, Mashal estimates they have reached over 300,000 people via social media, the web and mobile applications, connecting those who need it most with the information necessary to make independent decisions that are right for them.
Laraib's success and connections have given her a platform to inspire and educate others, not just through Mashal and Bridge the Gap but as an example and role model for women interested in entrepreneurship, technology, and leading positive societal change.
"Yes, I have faced challenges just from being a woman and a woman in tech, but it's all about passion. It's all about moving forward no matter how many tries it takes," Laraib said at a webinar organized by Youth Co:Lab and the UNDP Asia-Pacific Gender team on Unlocking the Potential of Young Women Entrepreneurs in Asia-Pacific.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has continued her efforts to tell her story and share her message of 'moving forward no matter how many tries it takes'. She realizes there is still a lot of work to do in her struggle for equal rights.
"In January 2021, in my community, a woman died due to unsafe abortion. No one can deny the importance of a [safer] environment," said Laraib.
I want everyone in Pakistan to know about Mashal and download our app when they are ready to start a family. They don't have to keep it on their phone for life, but I want it to be helpful when they need it."
Laraib’s motivation is her strong belief that reproduction and sexual health rights needs to be realized for all girls and women if we are to achieve gender equality.
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.