On 9 October, the world reeled in horror at news from Pakistan. A Taliban gunman boarded the school bus that was carrying 15 year old Malala Yousafzai and her friends home in Mingora in the Swat valley in Pakistan. He asked for Malala by name before firing three shots at her, also wounding two of her school friends.
Ten years ago another schoolgirl, aged 16, in the Swat valley decided to devote herself to improving women’s rights in Pakistan. Determined to fight discrimination, Gulalai Ismail established Aware Girls, our future partner. Now 26, Gulalai has developed Aware Girls into a well-supported women-led organisation working towards gender equality and peace in Pakistan. It was within this network that Gulalai met the young Malala Yousafzai. Peace Direct has been working with both of these incredible peacebuilders, supporting Peace Education projects and encouraging the activists of the future. Yet in October, a decade on from when Gulalai first began fighting for women’s rights, Malala was shot by the Taliban. Her crime was to demand fair access to education for girls in Pakistan.
Women’s rights violations and conflict have become tightly bound, a close relationship that came to Gulalai’s attention while working on projects with women through Aware Girls. She recalls a moment when one woman told of how she was helpless as her 12-year-old son was taken away from her to Afghanistan by Taliban militants. “Ten months later,” she told us, “he was dead.”
In reaction to the droves of young people like this joining the militants, Gulalai set up the Youth Peace Network, challenging extremism amongst vulnerable young people. As the world saw with the attack on Malala, challenging the Taliban’s authority can bring considerable dangers. Since establishing Aware Girls ten years ago, however, the position of women has deteriorated considerably further under the Taliban rule and, despite the obstacles in the way for women in Pakistan, Gulalai is more determined than ever to fight for women’s rights and Aware Girls is continuing to grow.
Aware Girls now also runs programmes tackling a range of issues for women in Pakistan – from health to human rights, trauma healing, humanitarian response and micro-entrepreneurship. Gulalai recognises that peace in Pakistan needs to start in the home: “Aware Girls has raised awareness of equal status. We have trained women to recognise their human rights, taught leadership skills and showed women how to negotiate within their families and have control over their own lives.”
In the meantime, Malala Yousafzai is undergoing rehabilitation in a hospital in the UK. Gulalai is certain of the impact that her message will cause: “Malala, you are a symbol of courage and bravery,” she said. “You have proven that girls of Pakistan want to speak, girls want to change the situation, and girls want to challenge religious fundamentalism! Malala, we are with you in your struggle to challenge the religious fundamentalists and in your struggle to promote girls’ education!”
Earlier this month, supporters from all around the world marked ‘Malala Day’, coming together in outrage at her attack and to protest against women’s rights violations in Pakistan. Since then, the Pakistani government has announced a scheme to provide cash rewards to poor families who send their daughters to school. Gordon Brown, the UN special envoy, has called Malala “a beacon of hope” for girls in Pakistan.
A beacon of hope indeed. Aware Girls’ work has never been more necessary, and never has it been more in the spotlight. Malala’s attack has raised awareness of the plight of women in Pakistan, and Aware Girls are in place now to engage a newly galvanised movement of women across the country more eager than ever to fight for women’s rights and peace.
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