My Pakistani family would describe me as
I call myself
🩸Reproductive health advocate
In Pakistan, it takes guts to say “no” to a forced-marriage, stay single past 35 while refusing gender roles.
But a secret campaign for LGBT rights that catapulted Pakistani transgender activist into fame & led to policy-change required more courage.
Co-creating sustainable design from retrieved ghostnets while living with a fishing community more challenging.
Nightmarish was pitching to male Pakistani-VCs who refused eye-contact & shifted uncomfortably as I detailed menstrual problems & our chatbot that addressed them.
Convincing teachers & parents on sex education while deploying chatbot in slum-schools was a minefield.
Raaji- a chatbot for menstrual education
One-line project summary:
Empowering adolescent girls in developing countries with engaging reproductive health conversations
Present your project.
37-million Pakistani girls menstruate monthly.
Realizing this, we launched Raaji chatbot to answer taboo menstrual-health questions. Our research showcased tech-alone wasn't feasible as adolescent girls weren't online/digital. So, we deployed Raaji in slum-schools which girls attended & strategized reaching 60 schools by 2021.
But Covid-19 shut-down underfunded schools indefinitely leaving more girls behind.
"Launch-app, reach-new-markets, increase-downloads," said mentors.
But girls we targeted were even more digitally-marginalized/discluded than before! Through tests & trials, we realized that by training community-health-workers via Raaji - educating girls on menstrual hygiene through neighborhood-interventions was possible.
Moving into the-new-normal, we mustn't forget: "menstruation is a human-rights issue". Raaji elevates humanity by providing menstrual-education to all girls so they can reach their full potential.
Submit a video.
What specific problem are you solving?
While menstrual health is integral to every woman’s well-being, societal norms, gender inequality and cultural biases limit women from getting basic menstrual hygiene education, access and care.
Period related problems are considered the 5th biggest killer of women in the world. In Nepal, for instance, menstruating women are sent to menstrual exile leading to deaths due to smoke inhalation, snake bites, weather conditions, or infections. In Kenya & India, girls have committed suicide due to period-related shaming.
In Pakistan, where I live, research has shown:
Unfortunately, only a handful of social enterprises are working on period education and it hasn’t been included in the national school curriculum. While period products are expensive globally, they are especially unaffordable for Pakistani girls.
Periods don't stop for pandemics or natural disasters and hence many girls across Pakistan menstruated during lockdowns without any access to sanitary hygiene products. Through Raaji, my organisation Aurat Raaj is promoting education & policy-level change on menstruation as its crucial to achieving dignity, bodily-integrity and life opportunities for girls.
What is your project?
We started engaging our core audience i.e girls with a chatbot called Raaji that answered several of their questions around reproductive health 24/7. Users didn’t have to reveal their identities, social sign-in wasn't required, data could be deleted at discretion and empathy was at the heart of these conversations.
After testing this AI approach with 5000+ users, we realised the challenges with this approach, and piloted a rule-based chatbot with focus on menstrual hygiene. This chatbot has been deployed in 5 elementary schools across Pakistan and formed partnerships with UNFPA+UNICEF & other stakeholders.
Our Urdu language chatbot curriculum addresses myths/hygiene basics helping adolescent girls living in urban slums manage menstruation with dignity. While schools/community centres played a big role in its distribution, with Covid-19 we see the product distributed through community leaders and assist parents who are uncomfortable having this conversation with daughters. We envision expanding content for different countries, topics & languages.
In the past, we embedded sponsored content within chatbot & earned revenue from local sustainable menstrual hygiene companies like Santex. Our impact measurement strategies, surveys and data dashboard (in progress) showcases menstrual hygiene gaps, needs & knowledge improvement of girls over time.
Who does your project serve, and in what ways is the project impacting their lives?
Since our project’s start, our work focused on adolescent girls in age-group 10 to 19 in Pakistan. In many developing countries, girls have least amount of power or choice about their education & career prospects, bodily rights, marriages or pregnancies. With focus groups/in-depth interviews in 5 different urban Karachi slums, we learnt that girls:
Have difficulty trusting/trying a product which is not endorsed by a female family member (for e.g wear a sanitary pad/tampon/menstrual cup)
Find it hard to talk about their monthly cycles, pregnancy journeys or their sexual needs openly
Inherit a century’s worth of myths damaging to their well-being
Schools are considered as a safe place to “be” themselves. Engaging girls on these topics in the classrooms can change mindsets.
School is first place where they tinker & toy with technology
Getting buy-in from community leaders, parents, teachers, and schools helps girls in opening up.
Conversations about menstrual hygiene cannot be done without conversations about gender equality. What holds menstrual health back is gender inequality and what holds gender equality back is menstrual health.
Our chatbot assists schools, community leaders and parents:
Create a safe space for girls to engage girls on menstruation and gender equality
Which dimension of The Elevate Prize does your project most closely address?
Elevating understanding of and between people through changing people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors
Explain how your project relates to The Elevate Prize and your selected dimension.
Empowering girls with sexual education who are traditionally left behind to own their bodies is powerful because it helps them:
be physically healthy throughout their lives
pursue educational opportunities confidently
Raaji tips the scale for a sexual revolution in developing countries, but also sheds a light on:
The widening tech divide between the developed and developing world
The gender digital disparity that holds girls back
Our work questions humanity’s biggest conundrum right now -
Can technology really be used for good - and for everyone’s good?
Can young+diverse leadership from disempowered communities+countries most affected by Covid transform this post-apocalyptic world?
How did you come up with your project?
Raaji is the name of the protagonist in my first animated series about an honour-killing survivor. The concept behind the word Raaji was that there are girls like her in Tunisia, Kenya, India, Nigeria fighting daily battles, squandering away their potential because families, societies and countries hold them down squelching their dreams. Yet, Raajis question, provoke and debate longstanding traditions.
The chatbot came about as a consequence of screening the series in classrooms across rural Tharparker in Sindhi through a mobile cinema experience in 2018. For girls, these videos opened up a pandora’s box of questions about abuse, menstruation and shame. Except, the team had to pack our bags and leave for Karachi. We didn’t have the resources, expertise, team strength to continue our work there.
Raaji chatbot was designed for those girls in hopes that one day they would own tech & we could answer their questions anytime and from anywhere.
Raaji isn’t only my baby - the artworks come from a Pakistani transgender activist, it belongs to the mentors who told me not to stop, the international networks who funded me, the partners who took a chance & the team members who took the calling.
Why are you passionate about your project?
Malala and I are both Pakistani women. But very different ones. When she was shot by Taliban fighting for education, I'd finished a private business school education in Pakistan. When she was recovering, I had a high-paying corporate job and a repulsion to activism.
When you’re the 1 percent of Pakistan bulldozing through the streets with guards and drivers, it’s hard to find something to complain about. Soon, my religious mother would retire from her matchmaking duties as I'd marry a man from the same ethnicity, religion, race and even higher social status.
My unraveling from this ‘script of life’ was sudden, unexpected and not at all because I was courageous like Malala. Merely by chance my ‘script’ went off-track. Joy lifted from it slowly, then all at once.
While Malala conquered the world, manic depression forced me to lock myself in a room. It tools years to unpeel layers of social conditioning, brainwashing, unraveling privileges & discovering inequalities that held me back.
The gun shots were inside my own home. The battles with myself.
What I discovered beneath it all was society’s fear of women's bodies/choices. Since then, my life’s work is dedicated to women's physical/mental health & gender-equality.
Why are you well-positioned to deliver this project?
Growning up in Pakistan, the barriers to working on social impact in a developing country were clear. But I also knew that these are the countries that need impact the most - rife with problems but also possibilities & potential. There is an abundance of creative, talented, resilient people looking for meaningful work. I know this because my team is made up of it. The girls in classrooms we impact are bubbling with this energy.
My social entrepreneurship journey has taken me to 30+ countries, these experiences have shaped me to understand that many issues women and Pakistan face are the same across the board. And how innovative social impact projects can be replicated/contextualised and realised in different countries through partnerships.
These opportunities have allowed me to see other people’s passion, projects, innovation, failures, successes and helped me realise that what sets these people apart is a strong “why”. I intentionally revisit the 'why' of my work and sometimes it unintentionally shakes me up.
This exposure helped me realise something truly unique about myself. While I can’t code or program, my power is in seeing how seemingly complicated technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain can be applied to solve generational and archaic problems.
I also have been able to attract & retain talented people. Many of them have gone on to achieve opportunities like Fulbright, Commonwealth, Chevening scholarships after contributing to this project. And I'm so glad we all learnt & grew together.
Provide an example of your ability to overcome adversity.
I promised myself I would never let him in. I would choose:
And work that made me wake up every morning reinvigorated
Besides brief encounters, I'd avoided Major Depression for 5 years. But when Covid struck:
In March, I was brave.
In April, I was resilient.
In May, I was scared.
By June I was face-down sobbing because depression wouldn’t get off my chest.
We’d laid off team-members
Schools closed down and with it the relationships. Percentage of funding disappeared on an office we couldn’t visit. Progress of work reversed. Everyday, girls in lock-down were asking how to to leave their homes where abuse was rampant.
If Malala was in my shoes, she’d be distributing pads in communities. Greta would be delivering virtual speeches so prolific, we’d stand up for action. AnneFrank would be writing a book so poetic, it’d be read for centuries after the pandemic.
I couldn't even get out of bed.
I had to choose a different route. Rest. Delegating to team-members. Therapy. Medication & Meditation. Crying & Cycling. Zooming with my family of mentors/mentees. Playing with nephews. The beach.
Not only these things saved me, they armoured me for the next round.
Describe a past experience that demonstrates your leadership ability.
Painfully shy, I had a hard time asking for a pencil let alone venture-funding. In 2017, I had gathered my courage to pitch at a tech-conference in Karachi. Fighting crowds & awkward stares, it was my turn on stage.
Scanning the room, I realized no one looked like me.The only other girl who’d pitched earlier had faced the hosts' misogynistic jokes. Go with the pitch I prepared or use time to ask important questions, I wondered.
“How many teams here have a female co-founder, teammember or mentor?”, I asked.
Remainder of my pitch presented why diversity was important. That day I felt I wasted an opportunity. But I felt it had to be said.
When I got off-stage, an usher walked up. She thanked me for what I'd said. So did the girl who pitched before me.
Fortunately, other pitches worked out - most abroad. Back home, I was a hot-head. Quickly, I stomached my work wouldn’t be recognised.
More I waded entrepreneurship, the more I spoke up. Now, women join my female entrepreneurs group where opportunities are shared daily, mentoring & community-building is integral. Today, my mentees belong to Asia/Africa/Arab countries & my femtech movement gains momentum.
How long have you been working on your project?
Where are you headquartered?Karachi, Pakistan
What type of organization is your project?
Hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit
Describe what makes your project innovative.
Our work combines components needed for a healthy and engaging learning experience together:
- Art & Animation
- Artificial intelligence
- Interactive Storytelling
It provides privacy to learn and empathy as you go along the learning curve.
It is contextually relevant and not a borrowed solution from a different market and country. We have used learning from each one of our pilots to make iterations. (See pilots : here, here, here, here & here & read here, here, here, here and here)
It has been made from very little funding (less than $10,000) and with very few people designing it. And I do wonder if we had the funding for a larger team, how incredibly innovative & impactful our product could be.
Even in this pandemic world where going fully digital is thought of as the way to be, we understand that certain products and countries need a balance of human intervention with technology. Innovation lies in seeing how they reach the most discluded user & his/her best interest.
What is your theory of change?
Select the key characteristics of the community you are impacting.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your project address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your project currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
Our first iteration of the app has been downloaded 5000+ times, our web demo has collected over 500,000+ interactions.
From the animated content series we've screened digitally and offline, we've made it has received over 15,000,000 views.
In the next 5 years, we will create an impact by reaching 1 million girls in and equipping them with knowledge converting them from uninformed / unhygienic practices to informed and hygienic, leading to girls back in school and women living in communities without shame. This will contribute to overall improved physical and mental health outcomes, as well economic productivity gains.
The snowball of this effect is better families, improved well-being and empowered women and girls in families and communities across Pakistan, who are motivated to come out and talk about their problems even if they are taboo.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
1) Proving with evidential data that technology should be used for conversations that are difficult especially around women's bodies in countries that are conservative.
2) Raaji can become replicable/customised and deployed for African, Arab & Latin American countries.
3) The government partners with us and has buy-in to the menstrual hygiene curriculum and integrates Raaji in public schools.
4) Parents download the app and trust that the content is a good source of sex/reproductive health education for their child.
5) We have become a youth leader in using tech-based interventions for education of school-going girls.
6) Created short-term and long-term impact measurement practices, processes and strategies.
7) Expanded to 60 locations/classrooms across different regions of Pakistan by JUNE 2021 and impacted the lives of 3000 students.
10) Built a powerful case about using local language & audio, visuals within chatbot can be effective for health education.
11) Our dashboard can effectively visualise real-time data & is regularly used by stakeholders to take action.
12) Trained teachers/community leader to independently conduct workshops using chatbot & outline operational challenges or content’s inadequacies for improvement.
13) Published our real-time aggregated annual insights through a white paper for reporting & stakeholder communications.
14) Established partnerships with relevant stakeholders and pushed for chatbot-based education for reproductive health education in the national curriculum.
15) Built a better data pipeline
16) We have raised funding that can help us scale and better our programs.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
1) Covid led to school closures indefinitely. We have to quickly pivot to a different distribution model from before. We did many campaigns with sanitary hygiene companies in schools before and these have to be reimagined. Our new distribution strategy still needs more testing.
2) We had paused fundraising after MIT Solve win concentrate on delivering impactful results on funding received. Covid means raising additional funding will prove difficult. Additionally, commitment from corporates as sponsors for our events and pilots have fallen through due to leaner CSR and marketing budgets.
3) Social Entrepreneurship in Pakistan continues to be challenging as a female entrepreneur. Before Covid, we'd be showcasing our work around the world. Now we feel disconnected from changemakers and discouraged by a system that does not support social innovation/innovators.
4) Staying as lean as possible/pivoting when needed during this pandemic and being optimistic for a better future will be quite challenging as the news becomes grimmer. Current employees manage things well but motivation varies daily.
5) Advocacy for the mental/reproductive health needs of women will be very important as they are taking a hit in Pakistan. Access to birth control, sanitary napkins, IVF is already becoming difficult. Balancing covid-advocacy with long-term business development goals will be the way to go.
Walking my personal mental health journey with borderline personality disorder, a limiting money mindset (mo' money, mo problems) and a deep fear of success will be my lifelong challenge.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
1. Hygiene companies finally realised that online mediums are important which wasn't the case before Covid. Our physical workshops in schools got sponsorships a plenty. Companies have asked us to use our platform to run surveys with different target audiences, do qualitative researches on certain target audiences around menstrual myths in Pakistan. This shows great potential for other modes of revenue.
2. Traditional VCs are laying low and not placing bets, but impact investors are becoming even more active than before. The pandemic has shown we are accelerating faster towards mass extinction and only changemakers can reverse the damage & help reach SDGoals by 2030.
3. We've been selected for various virtual accelerators and setting up zoom calls with new mentors, mentees, investors, PR/journalists around the world. Of course, it cannot replicate human-to-human interaction but it gets the job done.
4. I've realised that my teams' positivity is centered on my own, by taking the time out for myself to be in a stronger emotional and mental position, I am able to elevate my teams' energy.
5. Fear of success is deeply ingrained by patriarchy and colonialism. Many social entrepreneurs look at money as a bad thing that it brings greed, competition and evil. However, without money, much of the work we do is impossible & scaling even more so. Discussing these issues with an inspiring cohort from Elevate can help me slowly overcome this.
I am optimistic that with hard work, resilience and positivity. we can overcome them all.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
In the past, we have partnered with UNFPA & UNICEF Pakistan, The DO School and The Nest i/o. We are connected with powerful networks of changemakers through WSA, World Summit of Arts and Culture, IVLP, Fullbright, The Pollination Project, Roddenberry Foundation, BMW Foundation, Vodafone Americas Foundation, Tech Camp Cultural Vistas, BeChangemakers and MIT Solve.
What is your business model?
School Subscription Model
For deployment of chatbot with dashboard/analytics reports, schools can opt for a subscription model & have access for a particular duration. We charge the schools for this service monthly or annually.
Corporations Subscription Model
Corporates committed to SDGs or philanthropists also have taken up the cost of deployment in non-profit schools they run or sponsor. With subscription, a certain number of students can use the software one-on-one (privately on personal laptop in lab setting) or one-to-all (entire classroom through multimedia).
Paid app for parents
Parents can also subscribe to the app and as an app publisher we can offer free content in their apps for a limited amount of time and then charge users for a subscription fee that will allow them to access full content without any restrictions. The popular and common technique used by the majority of free app publishers is to offer a free trial period and then charge the subscription fee to those who wish to continue to access the app content.
We have already starting driving traffic to certain sustainable hygiene companies within the content we have built within our chatbot.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
In the last year, we have raised grant funding from:
September 2019 - Vodafone Innovation for Women Prize - $25,000
September 2019 - MIT Solve - $10,000
June 2020 - Catalyst Grant (Roddenberry Foundation) - $15,000
June 2020 - BMW Foundation - $15,000 (tech for good study on chatbots)
November 2019 - The Do School - $1000
February 2019 - Commonwealth Foundation - $1000
If you have raised funds for your project or are generating revenue, please provide details.
We had just started generating revenue ($200 per school RAAJI intervention) but projects fell through due to Covid and constricting marketing/CSR budgets of corporate and local companies.
Why are you applying for The Elevate Prize?
While I've been doing my work and have been appreciated for it from the users & mentors/partners, I secretly still walk around with a sense of shame for not taking the same path as 100+ million women in Pakistan. And when I don't carry the shame, I am reminded of it everyday through societal interactions. I think this particular prize is a reminder for me and other women that the path that I chose (or the one that chose me) was absolutely the most daring, and right one for me. It would celebrate every one of my hotheaded moments of activism, secret campaigns, and giving up on many things/people for the love of entrepreneurship. My extremely lonely journey, my battle wounds, my stand against my family (and the monetary privileges that it brought), and walking away from an extremely religious upbringing was worthwhile.
Our revenue generation process has been slow and something we are still learning to do with a bold, innovative idea in a country where people generally tend to pick easier audiences or business models. Pricing, selling, and partnering - all three are art forms that I am learning as I go along. Getting quality mentorship and consulting at this exact time could really help me sharpen those skills.
The pandemic for many small social enterprise has proven to be a complete 'shutdown' moment, i'd like to believe for us it was merely a small "pause" with a long very exciting journey ahead.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
This is a list of all the partners that we plan to work with in the coming years: