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Challenges for Young Women Human Rights Defenders in Pakistan

FRIDAY FILE - Gulalai Ismail, a 25-year-old woman human rights defender (WHRD) and Chairperson of Aware Girls[1], has been working from an early age to improve conditions for young women in Pakistan.

Gulalai shares with AWID her experiences as a young WHRD living in a context of oppression and discrimination in the name of culture and religion.

By Katherine Ronderos

AWID: When did you become and activist and what motivated you?

Gulalai Ismail (GI): I started when I was in 6th or 7th grade at school, first by writing about children’s issues and later about youth and women’s matters. After school, I started an organization for young women only. Why? Because in our province of Peshawar in Pakistan, on the Afghanistan border, women from early age internalize the oppression and discrimination that is promoted and accepted in the name of culture, for example, a woman who suffers violence but doesn't say anything is considered a role model. While some women have accepted this discrimination, we have started to challenge it and to raise awareness about women’s rights and the importance of new leaderships. My motivation to fight for women’s rights didn’t begin from just one incident alone, but rather because of the way culture is used to oppress women. There was a strong women’s movement in the past, which was great for our learning and growth, but there was no space for young women in the decision-making space; we were only seen as beneficiaries. The source of my inspiration is young women from rural areas, who are open and willing to learn and to change our society.

AWID: Do you consider yourself a WHRD and feminist?

GI: Yes, I am a feminist and I consider myself a young WHRD because women’s rights are human rights. I believe in our autonomy and that our bodies should not be controlled by men in the name of culture and religion. We are citizens entitled to enjoy equal rights.

AWID: What are the main challenges for young WHRDs broadly?

GI: I see six main challenges, the first of which is defamation. When young women work on women’s rights in Pakistan, especially feminists, they experience character assassination by opponents of our work. We are automatically considered atheists, impressed by the western world, who want to westernize the society (which is understood as corrupting the values of the Muslim Pakistani society). Young women activists are seen as women who don't have any values or ethics, a recent example of this, are the false accusations I faced in an online propaganda campaign, where I was wrongly accused of being an atheist, working to corrode the Islamic values of Pakistani society.

Second is recognition - people don’t believe in young women. As an organization of young WHRDs, Aware Girls faces the lack of recognition for our work. It has taken us time to politically participate and make our voice heard at the policy and decision-making level. But policy decision-makers do not take us seriously; they think we don’t know about legislation and how it works, and that we are just playing a game. In general, authorities do not recognize our commitment and responsibility to the work we do. Whenever we attend lobbying meetings, we face discrimination.

Aware Girls is a girls-only organization; the staff members and board of trustees are all young women. We face a lot of harassment from the government and the media because they believe they have the freedom to exploit and harass young women, which is a popular way of thinking in Pakistan. On International Women’s Day (IWD), the District Coordinator of Peshawar refused to participate in our event unless we offered him security and protection from possible riots, but we insisted that this was the responsibility of the State, not of women’s organizations. He also refused to grant us the permission to hold public activities to celebrate IWD, arguing that it was a vulgarity and that young women should not be promoting “western ideals”. We complained to the media about this and finally, with the their help in putting pressure, permission to celebrate IWD was granted. As citizens, we have the right to defend and promote women’s rights and mobilize publicly to express our ideas and make our voice heard. Interestingly, although local government has been supporting programmes for the elimination of violence against women and girls, in practice, they do not realise that with their actions, such as the one I just explained, they contribute to the harassment of young women.

We also have to deal with sexual harassment from different people. We have developed our own tactics, for example we never give our mobile phone numbers to anybody. Although the media has supported us on specific occasions, we have also experienced harassment from journalists. Sexual harassment of women in public spaces is commonly accepted; behaviour and thinking that has been the result of discriminatory stereotyping in public education. In Pakistan, women are killed in the name of honour, violence against women is still considered a private and personal matter, and women’s bodies are controlled by men in the name of religion, and the media plays a big role in perpetuating this.

A big concern is security - due to extreme religious fundamentalism, it is very difficult to advocate for women’s rights. In my province, the religious leader prohibited women from working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This violates our right to work and our freedom to choose where to work. People perceive young women as ignorant, that we don’t have any knowledge about the legal system, or how to defend ourselves, which increases the risks we face because people feel free to abuse or attack us. The security of our organization is also a concern because our office was located in a very conservative neighbourhood, where we were constantly harassed and felt very insecure working in those circumstances, and finally we had to move offices to a different part of the city.

Finally, it is difficult for an organization of young women to access funding. Donors make a lot of requests for evidence of our work and they prefer to support long-term established organizations due to their reputation and history. On one occasion, when we were shortlisted for a funding application, we noticed that we had to make an extra effort to strongly defend ourselves to prove that young women were able to do the work. Donors normally ask many questions, but for us, questions related to the capability of young women to do the work, talk to and influence policy and decision-makers, were very persistent.

AWID: What are the main dangers in your work? Are there any differences because you are young?

GI: Peshawar used to be very progressive city, but now, there is a lot of kidnapping for ransom. In my city no one is secure anymore. But as a young WHRD, I recognize I also face particular risks related to my beliefs and work. Aware Girls works on very sensitive issues such as safe abortion, which is not legal except under certain medical conditions when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. I am well aware that my work challenges the Taliban's power, and that brings dangers too. There are huge political issues involved in the radicalization of the region where I live, but I believe that grassroots communities can challenge the culture of extremist intolerance, a crucial part of the search for peace.

AWID: What are your recommendations to support the work of young WHRDs?

GI: People should recognize and acknowledge our work. Our voices need to be heard at the government and civil society levels. In addition, women’s and mixed organizations should consider partnering with young WHRDs and their organizations.

The international community should invest in youth leadership. In Pakistan, we have challenged the laws and the dictatorship, but now we see a growth in preference for male-only leadership positions. Donors are not sensitive to leadership, in particular to women and young people. It is very important to invest in women’s and youth leadership as women’s leadership is at risk and decreasing. In October this year, we will be at the UN in New York, advocating for the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution on Youth and Peace. We hope to have international support for this.

Finally, governments should protect and guarantee the rights of young WHRDs to work and defend their rights. If a religious leader says that women should not work for NGOs, the State should respond against that, and protect our right to work as well as provide security for us to do our work.


[1] Aware Girls is a young women-led organisation working for women’s empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan. Its work is based to strengthen the leadership capacity of young women enabling them to act as agents of social transformation in their communities.

West Asia