Twenty-first century Pakistan has been characterised by a constant threat of violence and a struggle by the government to maintain order. Religious extremism is possibly the biggest security threat to the state and the preventative measures of the Pakistani military have largely been unsuccessful. In Peshawar and other towns located near to the Afghan border, the level of radicalisation is a serious concern. The number of young people joining extremist groups in this region is particularly alarming. Couple this with the issues of drugs smuggling and arms trafficking, which are also rife, and it becomes easy to comprehend the fear which has affected so many citizens there.
The scale of the country’s problems may be demonstrated by the lack of security, but it is emphasised by the way in which the female population are treated. They are not only deprived of their basic human rights, but also frequently intimidated and subjected to abuse. Many women even fear abduction. But there are signs of hope. Our local partner, Aware Girls, is a good example of an organisation that has recognised the need for communities to challenge the extremist values that have been infiltrating so many aspects of their lives.
Over the last two years, Aware Girls have recruited and trained 50 young people as part of a progressive peace initiative. Though it is still in its early stages, the programme reached over 1,100 people last year, and Aware Girls are now working on its expansion, to which these 50 advocates are essential. During a five-day training course, they were taught the value of tolerance and helped to generate arguments about why peace is more effective than violence in addressing people’s grievances. Once they return to their communities, the volunteers help to prevent the radicalisation of the most vulnerable people who reside there by spreading this message.
Through what they have learnt, they are able to convey an image of a positive future for Pakistan, in which the violence has diminished. Their approach to this consists of two methods: firstly, to maximise their influence, they hold study groups designed to include other young people in the development of ideas about the political pressures faced by individuals in the region; secondly, they hold sessions with individual people which can address that person’s needs and issues.
In this way, Aware Girls aim to reaffirm the resolve of young people and counter extremist messages. By giving these young people a platform from which they are able to express their opinions, the perceived outcome is one of increased support for non-violent conflict resolution and a marked reduction in the recruitment by militant organisations in the area.
Gulalai Ismail founded Aware Girls at just 16 years old, along with her sister and some school friends. A decade later she has received the 2013 Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy in the US Congress. And she continues to work with young people to inspire real change, not only in her own country but also by expanding her work into neighbouring Afghanistan.