Supporting women’s rights and helping young men turn away from violence: the life’s work of Saba Ismail in Pakistan
In my hometown in Pakistan, there were women working for UNICEF who were role models for my sister Gulalai and I. We would go and meet these women and listen to them. They inspired us to stand up for rights as women, and speak out for the rights of others.
Then in 2002, we set up our own organisation, Aware Girls, to enable girls to stay in school. Over the years we have been working to increase the political participation of young women. We also educate women on their rights, on peace and the effect of conflict on women.
In 2009 we met a woman whose 13 year old son was recruited to join a militant group. He went to Afghanistan without even informing his parents. His mother received his dead body after a few months.
That was the moment when we understood what was wrong. We go into camps where boys like this live, and to places occupied by the Taliban and militant groups to stop this.
The journey of working for peace in Pakistan
So throughout these years we have been working in different thematic areas: on the political participation of young women, on addressing gender based violence, working on sexual and reproductive rights, working on peace, working on the economic empowerment of women and supporting women who have been affected by conflict. We have been going into the camps they have been living in, places that had been occupied by the Taliban and militant groups.
Back in 2009 Gulalai and I were the only ones doing this. It was just the two of us and a driver. We went into those communities and worked with women because we wanted to advocate that the humanitarian response has to be gender sensitive, and we wanted to document it in the form of real stories from women who experienced these problems.
From working on all these issues we have learned a lot. We have worked with thousands and thousands of young people, so of course it really is an amazing journey.
My father always taught us you have to resist against oppression. We have learned from him because all these years he has been resisting injustice. He never gave up on his values, he never gave up on his beliefs. I think that is what he transferred to me and Gulalai.
The most important issue for us is to believe in the power of young people, and young women especially. Men can get funds very easily compared to organisations led by young women. So we are breaking the barriers of women being in leadership positions – not yet accepted by our society.
There’s a lot of public harassment by men in our society – harassment in universities, in colleges, everywhere. Aware Girls was the first young woman-led organisation in Pakistan, and it takes a lot of courage and confidence to continue. You have to be ready for all the negative reactions and be ready with your strategies…how you’re going to prove that yes, young women do have the capacity and they do have the expertise. They are not just talking, but they have a real impact.
What sustains me is seeing that things are working, when we see that there are people whose lives have changed. It is incredible to realise that I am able to prevent just one person from joining a militant group. Or seeing one woman that I’ve helped and she is now out of that misery or out of that situation, she is now an independent woman, she is a free woman. Even though we have faced a lot of challenges, that gives us courage and strength.”