Saba Ismail is a leader for young women and girls from Pakistan. Saba now finds herself in New York City and is the first beneficiary of the Anna-Riitta and Fritz Fuchs Fund, an endowment administered by Kota, which offers a residency for organizations working on women’s rights, particularly to sexual and reproductive health and education.
1 - Tell us about your background
I am a feminist and working for empowering young women and girls. I come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan where women and girls are disproportionately affected by gender inequalities and discriminatory social norms. I was 12 going to school when one of my cousins who was almost my age was taken out of school, and was forcefully married to a man 15 years elder than her. That was the moment I realized that education, which should be a basic right for everyone, is actually a privilege, accessible only to a few. I started questioning it and I also found out soon that there is a greater lack of political will to invest in the empowerment of young women.
In Pakistan, women and girls are considered second class citizens; social injustices against women are widespread and are deep rooted into the culture. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one woman dies every 30 minutes because of reproductive health issues; more than 1000 women are killed each year in the name of honor; and the female literacy rate is only 24%, less than half the national rate.
Besides these issues, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been affected by violent religious extremism and militancy. Militant groups are very active attacking schools, markets, government offices, and creating fear in the community by suicide bombings. Girls’ schools have been targeted, attacked and closed and girls’ mobility restricted because of the violent extremism and cultural norms.
2 - How did your organization come about?
To fight against gender inequality, to bring a shift in the power structure and to ensure that every girl and women gets a fair chance to exercise their rights without any fear or barriers, at the age of 15 I co-founded the Organization Aware Girls with my sister Gulalai to provide a leadership platform to young women and girls of one of the most difficult parts of Pakistan i.e. the North West. Through Aware Girls we are educating young women and girls about their human rights and strengthening their leadership skills enabling them to act as agents of change, we are engaging them as partners in our work for the protection of human rights.
Aware Girls envisions a world where women’s rights are equally respected as human rights, women have control over their own lives and have equal access to education, employment, governance, justice, legal support, financial resources, recreation, and health (specifically sexual and reproductive health and social services).
3 - Tell us about the things you have been doing back home
Together, we are working for the social, economic and political empowerment of young women, and working to counter violent extremism by preventing young people from joining extremist groups. To make these dreams a reality in the harsh environment we are using different strategies which includes educating girls, community mobilization, using digital media, talking to policy makers, and engaging men! We decided that if change has to come in our society it has to come through young women and girls.
Every day, 10 women die in Pakistan from unsafe abortion. On sexual and reproductive health,
we established the first ever safe abortion hotline of Asia (“Sahailee”) providing information to women to induce safe abortion using misoprostol (available in pharmacies without a prescription) and giving them information on sexual and reproductive health. This may have saved the lives of thousands of women. We are sensitizing the health sector and communities to break the taboo and stigma attached to abortion. Referral directories have been developed identifying the existing services. We have educated 7,000 women about HIV/AIDS prevention and established 100 AIDS discussion clubs to reduce the stigma and discrimination. I have advocated to position Sexual and Reproductive Health among the priorities in the National Development Framework and in regional and global negotiations in post 2015 agenda.
We have also worked to strengthen women’s political participation ; to raise awareness of women workers of the informal sector about their labor rights; run campaigns to combat violence against women by organizing Young Women Leadership Forums to promote women’s leadership; sensitized media to help combat violence against women; and organized debate competitions in boys’ colleges to engage and motivate men in ending violence against women.
Using a peer to peer education model, our Youth Peace Network aims to counter and prevent violent extremism and build peace and harmony by engaging young people as peace activists.
4 - What do you see as the main challenge for progress for girls and women in Pakistan and your area specifically?
The main challenges are the violent religious extremism and militancy that violate basic human rights of women and the patriarchal culture that limits women to exercise their basic human rights.
The culture of my country is feudal and tribal and is very discriminatory to women, so effecting legal change is very difficult.
5 - Do you have some achievements that you are particularly proud of?
The reproductive health hotline is definitely something I am proud of! It has been going now for 7 years.
I believe I have transformed the lives of many women and girls. Women and girls stood up for their rights and have challenged the patriarchal norms and values. So far I have established more than 50 girl power clubs, and established the first ever hotline for women.
Recently, I have been awarded Chirac Prize for Conflict Prevention, awarded “100 Leading Global Thinkers” in 2013 by Foreign Policy Magazine and have been highlighted among 30 under 30 campaign by National Endowment for Democracy. I am the first female Hurford Youth Fellow with National Endowment for Democracy and Vital Voices Lead Fellow. I am currently member of the UN Advisory Group for the Progress Study on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 (on Youth, Peace and Security).
6 - You are now in New York - tell us why, and how we can help?
My plan in New York is to work with immigrant women and empower them about their rights. Immigrant communities can be changemakers, and often have a lot of influence also with their communities back home. I look forward to networking and collaborating with the like-minded and supportive Kota – Women’s Lab – CSI community, having a base to work from, and finding opportunities that I would otherwise miss.
To read more about the work of Aware Girls, see