In the past few months Pakistani peacebuilder Gulalai Ismail, founder of Aware Girls, has been recognised with three invitations to the USA. In July she won an award from the National Endowment for Democracy in the US Congress, and in August she was invited to attend the Obama Civil Society Summit in Washington. At the end of October she will address a peace conference on Capitol Hill, led by the distinguished Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.
A renowned activist for peace and women’s rights, Johnson leads ‘A World of Women for World Peace’, a programme to bring visibility to ‘the women who are victims of war and aggression, and the women who facilitate peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-building activities in their communities’. Johnson was particularly impressed with the work that Gulalai has done with Aware Girls and invited her as a key speaker for her annual peace conference on October 28.Gulalai set up Aware Girls at just 16, with the help of her younger sister Saba and a group of school friends. Based in Peshawar, in north-west Pakistan, Aware Girls is a successful organisation that since 2002 has trained, empowered and inspired hundreds of youth in Pakistan and beyond. They initially focused on empowering young girls and advocating for their rights. Supported by Peace Direct, they later launched “Seeds of Peace”, a peacebuilding programme to help young people resist recruitment by extremist groups and promote peace in their communities. During this year’s elections they set up an all-female team to monitor polling stations and ensure that women could vote.
Gulalai’s determination and courage have won her international recognition and admiration. On September 23, she was invited by the US State Department to attend the Civil Society Summit, a high-level roundtable hosted by President Obama himself. Heads of state, civil society, multilateral agencies, and private foundations looked at how to support civil society organisations, which are facing growing restrictions in many countries and have come under increased harassment.
As recognition for the success of Aware Girls, this year Gulalai also received the Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy in the US Congress. On July 17, NED awarded her as one of three under-30 activists, to mark its thirtieth anniversary year and to highlight the crucial role played by youth in advancing democracy.
“To those who say that the obstacles to democracy in Pakistan are too great to overcome,” said NED President Carl Gershman during the award ceremony, “Gulalai has patiently explained, with wisdom beyond her years, that democracy is evolving in Pakistan, and that change will come step by step, if people continue to gain experience and don’t lose perspective and hope.”
Gulalai’s work was particularly praised because of her determination, despite the daily risks and threats she faces. Peshawar has come under increasing attacks by Taliban militants in recent years. Women and girls are those bearing the brunt of conflict and radicalisation.
“Peshawar used to be very progressive,” says Gulalai. “But after Talibanisation it became much more conservative, and life is more difficult for my younger sister than it was for me. Just going out to the market is difficult because of the sexual harassment.”
According to government statistics, militants have carried out bomb and gun attacks once a day, on average, for the past five months. On September 22, a bomb blast outside a church killed 85 people and injured 120. It was Pakistan’s worst ever attack on Christians.
As Gulalai was in New York at the time of the attack, she joined the Pakistani diaspora in the US in a protest against the latest wave of violence and against her government’s policy of opening talks with the Taliban.
“The state should not indulge in negotiation with Taliban,” says Gulalai. “Negotiation will strengthen the militants, they will use it as an opportunity to expand. It will mean giving them impunity for their crimes.”
As shown by the story of Malala, the young activist shot by the Taliban for campaigning for education, a dissenting opinion or an innovative project are reason enough to get killed in Pakistan. Yet, thanks to the support of Peace Direct and encouraged by the positive impact of her projects, Gulalai is determined to carry on. She is fully aware of the dangers that her work entails. But she knows that bringing peace is possible, and she is not giving up.
Looking forward, next month we will report on Gulalai’s speech at the World of Women for World Peace conference.