Gulalai Ismail, Founder and Chair Person for Aware Girls, gives her thoughts to Jim Paymar at the 2017 Spirit of Humanity Forum on the work she does in Pakistan and some of the challenges she has faced….

JP – I was inspired by what you spoke about, I’d like you to speak to us about the work you do with young girls in Pakistan, how do you help them?

GI – I come from one of the most difficult parts of the world for any young girl. I was told by my cousins I was privileged because I had a father who ensured we went to good schools. As a child I didn’t think I was privileged because in my mind and with all the teachings I was being given, I thought it was a basic right for every young girl to go to school. It was only then when my cousin was taken from school at 15, when she had dreams of becoming a pilot, to be married off. Seeing her dreams shattered was devastating for me. That was the moment I realised that education was not a priority for every girl. More than 60% of girls are getting married at the age of 15 or 16. Only a few are able to complete more than 12 years of schooling.

JP – That was a catalyst for you to begin helping others?

GI – This was an experience that I realised I had to do something to change it. I was aware that I live in a society that was discriminatory to girls, because I had seen women visit my mother and tell their stories. So I knew as a very young girl what it meant to be a women in our community, and it was a culture that was against women. They see them as lesser human beings, that boys are more cherished than girls. Women had to be obedient wives rather than having their own dreams. The way society acts was to mold them into fitting into a family role rather than having their own dreams or passions. I wasn’t happy with it. But that moment with my cousin was the moment I realised I had to do something. So me and my sister started the idea. We started by listening to their issues, listening to their dreams. And then together we started discussing ideas on how we could make change, and we named it Aware Girls that would allow girls to speak up for their rights.

JP – Tell me about the male domination in your society. Is it possible to change it? Girls aren’t thought of as human beings, how do you change the male mentality?

GI – The main issue is patriarchy. We live in a culture which is fundamentally feudalistic and tribal culture. It means that men are considered as the head of the families, they are the ones who control and make decisions. If their children are women they are supposed to fill their duties in that society. Without changing that it is difficult to empower women. We come from a culture where men control most of the resources, and even legally the inheritance rules are lesser for women than men.

JP – How do you change that?

GI – Both men and women are part of it. Both amplify the system. It is about changing the mind set of both men and women. When I started working with girls, before Aware Girl, what we realised was that many girls had internalised the thoughts of patriarchy, that this is the best system, and often felt privileged that they didn’t have to work. Realising that, if we want to change the system, we have to change the mind set of girls. Once they understand it, and start speaking up then we can change patriarchy.

JP – It starts with girls, but then there is the threat, and the violence that can occur, with people who don’t want it to change.

GI – We engage whole communities, holistically. We engage them in dialogue so they can see the importance of what wonders can happen when both men and women are equally contributing to their community. When we started working on the political empowerment of women, because it is one of the important ways of changing patriarchy is to have more women voices in the policy making structures, then we can mold the systems in benefit of everyone.

JP – Is society getting stronger with this change?

GI – It is a tricky question. Yes it is getting stronger, yes we have more women in decision making positions. Yes we have witnessed more laws have been developed to protect women like laws against forced marriages, or honour killings. We have seen that. Now laws are in place to protect women.

JP – When you speak to groups like the SOH Forum, does it make a difference?

GI – Yes because it brings us more inter-connectedness. All human beings are connected to each other, we all learn from each other and get inspired from each other. If I was not a part of such forums I am unsure I could continue the work I do. It is so important to give the message of hope. When people hear about countries like Pakistan, but when they see people like me and hear of the work that is being done, they can see in dark places there are candles of hope.

JP – Are you a threat to some of the men who want to keep things as they are?

GI – I am a beacon of hope for many people. But I am also seen as a threat, but not by men, by institutions, for agendas I am challenging for example militant groups. I am working on preventing young people from joining militant groups. I am helping people unleash their potential to be peaceful people. I have seen people changing, I have seen institutions changing.