Tribute to Gulalai Ismail at the 2013 Democracy Award

Presented by NED President Carl Gershman

The great prominence given to Malala Yousafzai, Mukhtar Mai, Benazir Bhutto and other women in Pakistan have given the impression that women have a strong voice in Pakistani society and politics. In fact, the vast majority of women have no voice at all in in decision-making in the family, the community and the nation.

For that reason, Gulalai Ismail established Aware Girls when she was only 16 years old to provide young women with a platform for learning and advocacy, so they could act as agents of empowerment in their communities, receive an education, and gain control over their lives.

“All around me,” she said, “I saw girls being treated differently from boys…Girls have internalized all this discrimination—a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model.”

Aware Girls is a membership organization headquartered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the border with Afghanistan, a violent region where women are especially marginalized.  Aware Girls is expanding into other dangerous areas, such as southwestern Baluchistan and Afghanistan, where women’s rights are also severely challenged.

Gulalai has brought maturity and intellectual and methodological clarity to her work. In contrast to the personality-driven, often dynastic, politics of Pakistan’s elites, Gulalai has built Aware Girls using culturally sensitive, peer-to-peer outreach methods. The result has been a new paradigm of democratic leadership in Pakistan. Gulalai is a leader who is not only talented, dynamic, and articulate, but who also enables those around her to grow and become better as well. The seminars, workshops and trainings organized by Aware Girls are invariably exciting and filled with energy and enthusiasm, with young women beginning to think about their role in the world in new ways.

More recently, with the increasing involvement of young people in religious extremism, Gulalai has created the Youth Peace Network to promote tolerance and oppose violence.

To those who say that the obstacles to democracy in Pakistan are too great to overcome, Gulalai has patiently explained, with wisdom beyond her years, that democracy is evolving in Pakistan, and that change will come step by step, if people continue to gain experience and don’t lose perspective and hope.

Gulalai has not just demonstrated great determination and vision in her work but also immense courage. For her bravery and untiring efforts on behalf of Pakistan’s young women, and for her leadership in building a society where all people are treated with dignity and respect, the National Endowment for Democracy is proud to present its 2013 Democracy Award to Gulalai Ismail.