Saba Ismail is the founder and executive director of Aware Girls. To read more visit: http://www.awaregirls.org
Revenge is an important part of our culture and the people who do not practice it are called cowards and people solve their conflicts that continue for years or decades by taking revenge, and do not use conflict resolution and mediation skills.
Tell us your background, how did you get to where you are now?
I have a M.S in Biotechnology and Microbiology, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Abbottabad. I am a feminist, and working for women empowerment. I represented the civil society for the first time in the Informal Interactive hearing of the General Assembly with Nongovernmental organization, Civil Society and the Private Sector at the UN I am one of the founders of the South Asian Feminist Alliance on Women’s Economic and Social Rights aiming to work for women’s economic empowerment, livelihoods, and social security . I am the Youth Ambassadors of the Asia Pacific Youth Network (2012-2013), a network of young people working for promoting the values of human rights. I am also member of the International steering committee of the United Network of Young Peace Builders working for peacebuilding and conflict resolution.
In 2002 some young girls met in seminar on honor killing and found out that there is no platform for young girls so we established Aware Girls. Our vision is to build a society were women’s rights are equally respected as human rights and have equal access to health, sexual and reproductive health, financial resources, peace, education, recreation, legal services and other social services.
My father is a human rights activist, and I was among the privileged at home but other girls in my society weren’t. I witnessed young girls marrying at 15 to 30 year old man and they were never asked about their consent. Young girls live in difficult situations and have no say in decision making in their lives, sisters are beaten by their brothers, they are not allowed to get education, and need permission to visit family and friends etc. These were the things that motivated us to establish Aware Girls.
In Aware Girls, we work under different thematic areas, leadership for young women, political empowerment for young women, youth activism to promote peace building and conflict resolution skills, combating gender based violence, sexual and reproductive health rights and economic empowerment.
Aware Girls have been recognized by national and international media including an article “Young Women Fighting the Talibanization in Rural Pakistan” by the Guardian.
Currently I am the Hurford Youth Fellow with the World Youth Movement for democracy in National Endowment for Democracy. I am conducting research and generating a series of online discussions of the topic, “Role of Young Women in Democracies”.
In Pashtun culture there are proverbs that discriminate against women like: “If women would not have a nose, she would eat shit,” “Women are like dung cakes,” and “women are just like trash.” In media, the extremist groups are portrayed as heroes and presented as role models in text books to prepare young people for the holy war, Jihad.
What is one of your personal stories?
I support feminism. Once in my university class there was a discussion about a woman’s right to decide about her body and pregnancy. One of my classmates said, “If a woman has to abort a child or if there is a physical problem with the woman or fetus, she has to consult the religious leader and take consent from him but do not decide on her own.” I spoke up and said it is the women’s decision and her body belongs to her so she has to decide whether or not to have the child or to use other methods She does not need to take a permission from someone else about her own body. I was the only one speaking for women’s rights among 16 girls and 5 boys in that class.
Did you face aversion for your strong feminist stance?
When men see that young women are working towards equality they try to exploit in many ways. For example, harassing and bullying and even receiving messages and calls on personal contact numbers.
We face a lot of challenges at a personal level. Once I posted on Facebook about a sexuality institute and someone responded that, “Now you will learn how to be a good prostitute.”
Aware Girls is secular, and when we talk about human rights, we are considered to be spreading anti Islam and Western agendas. It is also unacceptable for the society to see young women traveling around alone. It is the default to think we are using our bodies not our brains which has to be changed.
What about INGOs like the MDG goals?
MDGs are very important documents to achieve the gender equality and women’s rights.
Now that you have been working for almost a decade in this field, what changes have you seen?
Previously it was difficult to work as a young woman because when we started all girls were from 14 to 16 years old. We volunteered with different human rights organizations and we were more independent once we had experience and Aware Girls got matured. During the 10 years many things have been achieved like 7 women friendly laws have been passed in Pakistan in the recent 7 years. Women have stared speaking up and raising their own concerns and participating in the politics representing 21% in the parliament.
Young women like Maria Torpakai, Naseem Hameed and Malala have showed a woman’s courage and spirit. Women’s rights have started to recognize as human’s rights and more women are willing to stand up and work for human rights.
It is difficult for women to come forward in some cases and areas, there is growing violence, and girls are being shot in our villages who work to promote human rights. There is higher sexual harassment, so women have to be very careful and strategic. They should know about the existing laws supporting women and make use of them.
If there was a young girl who was interested in working for women’s rights, what advice would you give her?
My advice would be speak up and not to be silent. You have to challenge the gender norms and values in your own societies. Women have to be confident and build their own capacities and come forward and speak for themselves because no one else will speak for them. It isn’t easy to work on women’s rights issues, but if women are determined then she can achieve her goals if she is committed.
Tell us about More Aware Girls.
Democracy requires informed participation of public. In Pakistan woman are not represented in the political parties and at the decision making level. The government is very influenced by the religious groups and this creates an absence of women who will not come fourth. It is considered a vulgarity for women to cast their vote. There is a greater need to train a woman about her civil rights and civic education. That is why we train women on public speaking skills, civic education and becoming agents of change in their communities. We train them so that they can train other women in their communities. We also have a network in the name of” Youth Peace Network” where we invest in boys and girls teach them about peace building and conflict resolution skills and they utilize the knowledge through weekly study groups with other young people who are more vulnerable to join the militant ranks working to spread the values of nonviolence, tolerance, inter faith harmony and pluralism within the society.
We also research on the psychological impact of terrorism on young girls and based on the research report launched a trauma healing program and we train women counselors on the use of local methods to heal the trauma because of terrorism present in their communities.
We also ran a campaign on combating gender based violence and organized leadership forums for young women to build their leadership capabilities and awareness raising about existing women friendly laws in Pakistan.
There are so many women involved in the development of the country but are not recognized and acknowledged, so after their profiling we honored them on National Women’s Day in Pakistan.
We also organized speech competitions in boy’s colleges on Combatting Gender Based Violence. During Taliban operations many people were displaced including pregnant women while having no health support or care.
We conducted research on gender disparities on humanitarian aid given to the people in the area, we conducted education sessions with women and designed special kits for women including hygiene kits so they can care for themselves better.
We have different programs for economic empowerment with women to give them ideas on how to start their businesses or link with different institution that can help them with their businesses.
We also have a helpline in which we give referral services like medical, legal, media to victims of gender based violence. We also have a hotline that provides information on sexual and reproductive health rights which is the first hotline of its kind in Asia that gives information about HIV/AIDS, post partum hemorrhage, contraception, etc. according to World Health Organization guidelines. We receive more than 200 calls a month and provide services in 5 local languages. We also give young women training on how they can be digitally secure and use digital and cyber spaces in a secure way
It is important to change minds at early ages, so we have Child’s rights program in which we build capacity of young children and children volunteer themselves in the Child rights clubs established through this program and they have organized child’s rights and human rights day in their schools and conducted different activities. We have also other programs on Active Citizenship, HIV/AID prevention, education and treatment
If we want to achieve sustainable peace and development, we have to empower women.