The great prominence given to Malala Yousafzai, Mukhtar Mai, Benazir Bhutto and other women in Pakistan gives the impression that women have a strong voice in Pakistani society and politics. In fact, the vast majority of women have no voice at all in decision-making in the family, the community, and the nation.
For that reason, when they were only 16 and 15 years old respectively, sisters Gulalai and Saba Ismail established Aware Girls, to provide young women with a platform for learning and advocacy so they could act as change agents in their communities, receive an education, and gain control over their lives.
“All around me,” Gulalai told The Guardian, “I saw girls being treated differently from boys…Girls have internalized all this discrimination—a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model.”
Aware Girls is a membership organization headquartered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the border with Afghanistan, a region where women are especially marginalized. Still, Gulalai and Saba are courageously expanding Aware Girls’ programs into other areas, such as southwestern Baluchistan and Afghanistan, where women’s rights are also severely challenged.
Gulalai and Saba, now 26 and 25, have built Aware Girls using culturally sensitive, peer-to-peer outreach methods; the result has been a new paradigm of democratic leadership in Pakistan. They are young leaders who are not only talented, dynamic, and articulate, but who also enable those around them to grow and take action.
This is important work in a country that experiences high incidence of rape, domestic abuse, and other forms of violence—including acid attacks—against women. The numbers are disturbingly high in Pakistan; nearly 80 percent of women become victims of such abuse during their lifetimes, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
“If you ask me,” Saba said, “I think the number is closer to 100 percent. When we get together and we talk about these issues, women from every sector of society are experiencing this, but the problem in our society is women do not speak up.”
Gulalai and Saba Ismail
Saba was selected as a World Movement for Democracy Hurford Youth Fellow in 2013, where she developed online seminars on the role of young women in emerging democracies. Saba and Gulalai understand the importance of women’s participation in the country’s democratic processes beyond tokenism; they organized Pakistan’s first-ever election observation team composed entirely of women.
In addition to their leadership and outreach programs, Gulalai and Saba also invite prominent Pakistani female role models to mentor young women in the Aware Girls program.
Dr. Fouzia Saeed, a mentor for the organization in 2011, said Aware Girls has done instrumental work to build capacity and develop a new generation of young women leaders. Dr. Saeed, a NED visiting fellow and the director of a democracy center in Pakistan, authored anti-harassment legislation and developed a nationwide alliance against sexual harassment for the country.
“I’m proud of the work Gulalai and Saba are doing to empower young women throughout Pakistan,” she said.
Although safety continues to be a concern for Gulalai and Saba—Aware Girls was forced to relocate its office after receiving threats—they never lose sight of their mission and continue to work to empower young women in Pakistan.
“I want to dedicate this award to all those young women who have always spoken for the empowerment of young women…”
For her courageous efforts to advance women’s rights in Pakistan, Gulalai was awarded NED’s 2013 Democracy Award. During the awards ceremony, she said, “Young women in Pakistan are taking their roles as active citizens, as voters, as politicians, and as critics of the political processes. I want to dedicate this award to all those young women who have always spoken for the empowerment of young women, for change, and for sustaining democracy in Pakistan. I believe that democracy, and sustaining democracy, is a slow process. We have to be patient about it.”
Interview with Saba Ismail at the UN Foundation
Arabic Interview with Gululai