On The Road Blog
Pakistan’s Unsung Heroines: Grassroots Group Paves the Way for Girls’ Leadership
One year ago, Taliban gunmen shot a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the head. Miraculously, she survived. Now she is an inspiration for the whole world. Yes, she is Malala.
That horrific event brought an unprecedented level of attention to the dangers and oppression that girls in Pakistan face every day. Although this crisis has existed for decades, most of the world was oblivious to it before the attempt to silence Malala. The fight to protect and empower girls in Pakistan—and elsewhere—has now grown into an exciting global movement.
Malala’s story is one chapter in a much longer tale. A grassroots movement to achieve peace, justice, and equality in Pakistan has been under way for many years. One of the individuals leading that effort happens to be another young Pakistani woman, whose name the whole world also ought to know: Gulalai Ismail.
In 2002, 16-year-old Gulalai and some of her friends decided to take a stand against the violence and extremism that was threatening her future and the futures of other Pakistani girls. The women’s rights movement in Pakistan has played a robust role in politics and social change. But, as elsewhere, the voices of adolescent girls are missing in the larger women’s rights campaign. Recognizing the need for a safe space for adolescent girls to have a dialogue about the unique challenges they face, Gulalai and six other young women formed a grassroots group to inspire and build the capacity of young girls to become leaders and shape their nation’s future. Aware Girls became the first organization in the country led by girls, for girls.
Being a girl in Pakistan means struggling to gain access to education, employment, and appropriate healthcare; having no voice in most of the decisions that directly impact your life; and coping with deeply entrenched attitudes and practices that harm girls and women. These huge challenges have not stopped Gulalai and Aware Girls from igniting a movement that is already transforming how girls and young women think about themselves, what they can achieve, and the rights they deserve.
“Digital Storytelling, a program catalyzed by GFC’s support, has been phenomenal in empowering our participants and getting their voice out in the world,” said Gulalai during her visit to GFC this week. GFC’s support has helped Aware Girls to expand and to grow in visibility and capacity. Aware Girls has thrived. Since GFC first invested in the organization in 2010, its budget has grown by 240 percent, and the number of girls it serves has quadrupled, from 2,000 to more than 8,000.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a stronghold of the Taliban, the security and safety risks are immense. A simple wish to go to school is life threatening, yet leaders like Gulalai are mobilizing the community for girls’ rights, including education, constitutional equality, and reproductive and sexual health.