Educating a generation of girls: a conversation with Dr. Zareen Roohi Ahmed

Educating a generation of girls: a conversation with Dr. Zareen Roohi Ahmed

One of the first impressions of Dr. Zareen Roohi Ahmed is her elegance and grace. Her softly spoken manner and warm smile typically contradicts the characteristics of an ambitious go-getter with a career  which spans over 25 years as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, designer, inventor, community activist and educator. It’s hard to believe one woman did it all, yet when speaking to Zareen the obvious signs are there; she’s smart, driven, creative and above all a humanitarian – all the qualities which led her to become the Founder and CEO of the Halima School of Excellence (a school for underprivileged girls) and the Founder of ‘Gift Wellness Ltd’ which makes a range of sanitary products and donates to women in crisis.

For a woman whose life goals are to fight the challenges that come with poverty and inequality, Zareen’s own life was met with serious challenges which led to her to change the course of her own journey, but one that would give hope to thousands:

“The Halima Trust was set up after my daughter tragically passed away in 2007. She was just 19 and going to university. It was an extremely painful and difficult time to process. Her ambition was to always help less fortunate communities so I established the charity to fulfill her wishes. We built a school for orphan and disadvantaged girls in Wazirabad, Pakistan in 2011.”

Named the Halima School of Excellence, 400 girls currently attend the school ranging from pre-school to sixth form years:  “All of them want to go to university and now we are building a college for them,” she said beaming with happiness. The charity has gone onto to achieve incredible and significant work from a partnership in 2011 with Oxfam and UNICEF, providing clean water and sanitation to people in South Sudan to actively campaigning for girls’ education and rights in Pakistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to say where Zareen’s best achievements lie as her career was built on a number of successful chapters as a graphic designer, a fundraising and marketing manager for the NSPCC in 1992 (helping to launch the ongoing ‘full stop’ campaign and the Asian helpline), the National Operations Director of the Experience Corps, where she was responsible for recruiting 250,000 people over the age of 50 into volunteering. Later she was to become the CEO of the British Muslim Forum and finally earning her PHD specialising in Muslim women in British society.

Zareen’s work in the charity sector continued as she later went on to establish her company ‘Gift Wellness Ltd’ in 2012 and was recognised and awarded for her work by the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce’s Enterprising Women Excellence Awards. The main purpose of Gift Wellness was to bring a product to the market that would not only benefit women, but would also support the work of her charity. Zareen explains the sanitary towels are not ordinary products but made of pulverized tourmaline- a mineral which is proven to be anti-bacterial and anti-viral.  The reason she came up with using tourmaline was initially to help women living in refugee camps who barely have access to sanitary products. The pads are intended to protect them from infections and illnesses, which is quite common in the camps where living conditions are often unhygienic and unsafe. Zareen explains that ordinary pads are made of pesticides and plastics:

“Me and my mum went to see a herbalist for her high blood pressure and he showed her this belt that had this mineral stone called tourmaline in it. Tourmeline has negative ions and is proven to keep you healthy and keep viruses away. I started to research into all the products it could be used for. At the same time I was reading articles about women in refugee camps having to tear the bottom of their abayas (Islamic dress) and roll the material to use them as sanitary protection. This is an issue overlooked by aid agencies.”

Zareen’s products became so popular that health food giants, Holland & Barrett and other independent health stores started to stock her range from 2014. Gift Wellness was given its name to match her ethos to support those less fortunate. As Zareen candidly puts it: “it’s a gift for us women and women in the refugee camps. For every box that is purchased one box is donated to a woman in crisis.”
To date, Gift Wellness has donated over 1 million sanitary boxes to women in crisis through food banks, homeless charities and refugee camps.

Like all tour de force characters, Halima’s upbringing was what shaped her. She came from an ‘open-minded family’ where she was surrounded by a lot of ‘love and encouragement’ from her parents. This, she feels contributed to her resilience and strength. For Zareen, both parents were her ‘rock’ with her father being her ‘best friend’. She ended the interview imparting the wisdom of her mother:

My mum told me a girl needs to be able to turn her hand at everything. So I sew my own clothes, I paint, can cook anything and run a business to help others. I grew up with that mentality.”