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Two fearless women win prestigious award for human rights activism in conflict zones


Two fearless female activists, Gulalai Ismail from Pakistan and Gauri Lankesh from India, have won the prestigious RAW in WAR 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award for their courage speaking out against extremism against a backdrop of armed conflict. This award is testament to the power local people have to make a difference to thousands of lives.

  • Published

    6 October 2017
  • Written by

    Charlotte Fraser

Two fearless female activists, Gauri Lankesh, and our Pakistani partner, Gulalai Ismail, have won the prestigious RAW in WAR 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award for their courage to speak out and to defy extremism against a backdrop of war and conflict.

Both have suffered death threats and tragically, one month ago on 5 September 2017, Guari was murdered when entering her home in an attempt to silence her voice. This award honours her refusal to be silenced and the work of brave women activists fighting for a better world.

The Award is presented by RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in War) , a London based organisation dedicated to bringing together and supporting the work of international women of courage who stand for human rights and justice in war and conflict zones.

Winner: Gulalai Ismail

Gulalai Ismail is a courageous Pashtun human rights activist from Swabi, Pakistan. At the age of 16 in 2002, Gulalai founded Aware Girls with her sister Saba Ismail, aiming to challenge the culture of violence and the oppression of women in the rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa area in the north west of Pakistan.

Driven by a passion to challenge the inequality, intolerance and extremism, they began running workshops to provide girls and young women with leadership skills to challenge oppression and fight for their rights to an education and equal opportunities.

Malala Yousafzai was an attendee of Aware Girls programmes in 2011. On Gulalai Ismail receiving the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Malala Yousafzai, said:

"I am proud to support my sister Gulalai Ismail, a fearless advocate for girls' education and equality in Pakistan. 

Through Aware Girls, Gulalai is training young women to advocate for their rights. Her work is fostering the next generation of female leaders in our country. 

Despite discrimination and danger, Gulalai is continuing her fight to see every girl to go to school. She has been my friend for many years and I wish her congratulations on this distinguished honour."

Gulalai has been repeatedly threatened for her activism. On May 16, 2014, four armed gunmen attempted to force their way into the family home, shouting and looking for Gulalai Ismail who had been delayed by lost baggage at the airport, which saved her life.

Despite the threats and danger faced by her and her family as a result of her activities, Gulalai continues her work in Pakistan.

On accepting the award, Gulalai Ismail said:

“I am honoured to receive the Anna Politkovskaya Award, an award dedicated to Anna; a woman of great courage and bravery. A woman who refused to be silenced. I am accepting this award because just like Anna, I am also refusing to be silenced by adversity, violence and extremism.

Speaking out for our rights and speaking out against religious extremism is our fundamental right, no one should have to choose between the right to speak and the right to life. 

While I receive this award wars, gun violence, and genocides continue in many parts of the world. Refugee camps are becoming homes to millions of people. People are getting denied their right to self-determination. New brands of religious extremist organisations keep on emerging, with every new brand beholding much more severity of violence.

If there are conflicts, there are brave women too and this award is not only my recognition as a person, but a recognition of all those brave women who have spoken out, even if the cost was intimidation, threats and murder. 

Peace Direct is proud to see Aware Girls having grown from a small committeed organisation, to a globally recognised women’s activist organisation, changing lives for thousands of people.

It is testament to the power of local organisation, when they are given the support they deserve.


Winner: Gauri Lankesh

Gauri Lankesh was a fearless journalist and a strong critic of Hindu extremism, a campaigner for women’s rights, and a campaigner for the rights of Dalits. A senior Indian journalist and activist, Gauri was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore on 5 September 2017 in order to silence her voice and her critical reporting and activism.

The Guardian newspaper wrote after her murder: “In big cities and small towns across India thousands of people are protesting at the murder of a gutsy woman who fought for the marginalised, who called Dalit victims her sons, and who protested against injustice and venal politics in the face of death threats.”

According to the BBC in the last few years, journalists seen to be critical of Hindu nationalism have been berated on social media, while many women reporters have been threatened with rape and assault.  The New York Times quoted journalist Rana Ayuub saying that Gauri Lankesh had “received death threats every day, far too many to count, from different sides of the political equation”.

Her death on 5 September will be mourned by many across the world.

Special tribute: Jamalida Begum

Special tribute is also paid to Jamalida Begum, a brave Rohingya survivor of rape by Myanmar security forces, currently a refugee in Bangladesh, who, in 2016, spoke out about her own rape and that of three other women in her village and continued to denounce their treatment publicly, at severe personal risk.

In so doing, Jamalida Begum played a significant role in drawing the world’s attention to the grave human rights violations being committed against the Rohingya population, including sexual violence committed against Rohingya women and girls, in Myanmar.

 On receiving the Anna Politkovskaya Award, Gulalai Ismail and Gauri Lankesh will join a group of remarkable women human rights defenders who received the Anna Politkovskaya Award in the past, including Malala Yousafzai (2013).

The awards will be presented to the winners in March 2018 in London at RAW in WAR’s ‘Refusing to be Silenced’ event, part of the 2018 Women of the World (WOW) Festival at the London’s Southbank Centre. 



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