Empowering Women in Pakistan: An Interview with Saba Ismail, Aware Girls Executive Director

On July 17, 2013, Saba Ismail, founder of Aware Girls—a non-governmental organization in Pakistan working to empower young women through leadership training—will be receiving the 2013 Democracy Award of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Washington DC.

Former AHA grassroots coordinator Sadie Rothman interviewed Saba earlier this year in March for Humanist Network News to learn more about this excellent organization.

HNN: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ismail: I am a feminist and working for women empowerment. I am the Executive Director of Aware Girls. I belong to a rural area from the North Western Province of Pakistan called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. I have done my Master of Science in Biotechnology from COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Abbottabad, Pakistan.

I am one of the Youth Ambassadors in Asia Pacific Youth Network for 2012-2013. I am the member of the International Steering Group of United Network of Young Peacebuilders, a network working to promote peace. I am also one of the founders of the South Asian Feminist Alliance for Women’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. I am the founder of Sahailee Hotline, which provides information about sexual and reproductive health rights. I received award from the British High Commission in Islamabad for contributing one of their “Most Inspiring Stories” and have represented the Civil Society for the first time in the “Informal Interactive Hearing of the General Assembly with Non-Governmental Organizations, Civil Society and the Private Sector” at the United Nations in New York in June 2010.

Currently, as a 2013 Hurford Youth Fellow, I am conducting research and facilitating online seminars on the role of young women in emerging democracies, including an exploration of ways in which young women might combat religious extremism and engender youth access to decision-making.

HNN: You founded an organization called Aware Girls. What does Aware Girls do and how did you get it started?

Ismail: Aware Girls is a non-governmental young women led organization in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that I co-founded at the age of 15 to empower young women through training and advocacy. We are working to empower young women by strengthening their leadership capacities enabling them to work for social change and women empowerment, and advocate for equal access of women to health, education, governance, political participation, and other social services. Our key working areas are combating violence against women, strengthening leadership skills among young women, political participation of young women, HIV/AIDS prevention among girls and women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and peace.

HNN: What has been the greatest challenge of working on this project?

Ismail: Working in a conservative, male-dominated and patriarchal society always challenge us in many ways. We face challenges from the religious extreme people and groups, local government, media, different civil society organizations that want to impose their own agendas. Financial constraints are also a big challenge for us to work.

HNN: What has been the greatest reward or the most inspiring or affirming moment so far?

Ismail: Every moment in which a girl empowers by knowing about her rights and speaks for herself is a rewarding moment. The growing number of active women from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is always affirming.

HNN: Aware Girls is affiliated with the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organization. How do you define humanism and how does it relate to or inform your mission?

Ismail: Humanism focuses on human values, interests, and dignity—irrespective of religious beliefs—and is committed to diversity. I believe that the rights of men and women are equal human beings, and I am working to promote equal rights and eliminate anti-humanism irrespective of any rewards after my death. Aware Girls is a humanist organization; humanism is our value. Through our peace programs we are promoting rationalism, logical thinking and humanism among youth of Pakistan.

HNN: Your story is an inspiring one. How can members and friends of the AHA who want to get involved help and support you?

Ismail: They can share our work and website www.awaregirls.org and can give us donations to help empower young women. They can link us to different international networks, platforms and organizations to which we can share our work.