“Young Women are Peacebuilding’s Most Excluded”: Q&A with Saba Ismail

Pakistani women pass by Graffiti's on the exterior wall of a school. Rawalpindi, Pakistan, November 20, 2015. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

With 1.8 billion of the world’s people aged between 10 and 24, youth are increasingly seen as crucial agents of peacebuilding. In December 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2250, a landmark document highlighting this connection and urging member states to increase youth representation at all levels of decision-making.

According to Saba Ismail, co-founder and Executive Director of Aware Girls—a youth-led organization working for women’s empowerment and gender equality in Pakistan—young women are in turn the group most excluded from peacebuilding.

Ms. Ismail said there were no women or young people involved in the negotiations between the Taliban and Pakistani authorities of the past few years, for example.

“You have to take a step if you want to bring a change, and you have to do something,” she told International Peace Institute Policy Analyst Margaret Williams. “If we do not speak up, then the militants will get more power.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

In 2002, you and your sister started Aware Girls, an organization dedicated to human rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality in Peshawar, Pakistan, when you were 15 and 16, respectively. What challenges and opportunities did you both face because of your age and how, if at all, have things changed in the past 14 years?

When we started Aware Girls, I was very young. My sister and I had a cousin who wanted to become a pilot, and one day she was told that she couldn’t go to school anymore because she was getting married to a man who was 10, 15 years older than her. That was the moment when I realized that education—which should be a basic human right for everyone—is only a privilege. It is only accessible to a few people in the country, and I started questioning this.

I found out that there are problems—that girls and women have internalized this discrimination. In our area, there was no single organization; there was no single platform for young girls and women to come out and share their ideas and to work only for young girls. That was the reason my sister and I started Aware Girls at a young age. We didn’t have the expertise and skills of running an organization. We volunteered with other human rights organizations and women’s rights activists. We learned by doing and then we started our own setup.

One challenge is that we are a young organization working in rural and tribal areas. There are many other organizations working on women’s empowerment but they’re not led by young women. Or they portray themselves as women’s rights organizations but the people who work there violate women’s rights. They see young women, so they think that they can hijack the agenda.

These are some of the challenges that we faced when we were very young. These have been changing in the past 14 years; the situation in Pakistan has been changing. Over the years, we have transformed the challenges into opportunities. Currently, the challenge to our work is religious extremism and militancy, because the militants are fearful of empowered women. They fear that if girls and women are educated, then it will be problematic for them. And that’s why they have been a continuous threat to our work.

There is another problem with some of the political groups in Pakistan when it comes to women’s participation in the electoral and democratic processes of the country. They fear women and girls participating in some areas, so there is an agreement between the political parties and the extremist religious groups that women will not come out and vote. If the women come out, they will be attacked, the polling stations will be attacked. Through the platform of Aware Girls, we are working to empower young women. We want women to come out and participate in the political and democratic process of the country. But these conservative political groups, these religious groups, are also a very big hindrance to our work.

You highlighted the rising extremism that your region is facing. The north of Pakistan has long experienced conflict and violence and that often targets young people and youth—with the recent Bacha Khan University attacks and last year’s Peshawar school massacre being prime examples. Given these circumstances, what are the realistic opportunities for local organizations—and in particular youth networks—to prevent violent extremism and build support for peace?

In Pakistan, especially in the northwest of Pakistan where I come from, it’s very important to identify the extremist religious groups, to understand their agenda, what they want: they want to restrict women’s mobility; they want to restrict women’s and girls’ education; they want to have their own Islamic caliphate. It’s actually a power game that they are playing, and I think that it’s really a responsibility of the young people and local organizations to tell people what’s the real agenda behind these militant organizations, so that we can prevent young people from being recruited.

It’s not only preventing young people from being in these groups—we should also address the psychological trauma that is the result of religious extremism and militancy, because there are so many people who have left the province because of the issue, because they have been attacked, kidnapped for ransom, or feel as those their lives and the lives or their families are threatened. Almost everyone in my province has been affected by militancy. I think that’s how young people—youth-led organizations—should work to engage women also in these processes, because young women are the group most excluded in peace processes.

I’ll give you an example: when the negotiations between the Taliban and the Pakistani government were happening—I think it was almost two years ago—there were no women and young people in those negotiation committees. But the thing is that you have to take a step if you want to bring a change, and you have to do something. If we do not speak up, then the militants will get more power. If we remain silent, they will create more fear in the communities.

In early February, we saw the launch of UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which highlights young people’s active roles in peacebuilding globally and calls for increased representation of youth in decision-making at all levels. How do you think this resolution will translate into youth-led initiatives, and how will it translate into the work of Aware Girls?

In Pakistan and using the platform of Aware Girls, I am going to use this resolution to include young people in peacebuilding processes at the policy level. I am going to hold policymakers accountable through this document if they don’t, and I will use this document to bring a shift in values at the community level, so that peace is both for men and women.

We have to engage young people in all decision-making levels of the peacebuilding processes. It’s not just about the token representation of young people. The thing this resolution really addresses is the participation of young people: their prevention; their integration; that they have a basic right to live in a safe place where they have livelihoods; where they have the opportunities for education; where they have opportunities for sports. We have to actually include and integrate peacebuilding processes in every aspect of life.

In our education system, as well, I see that this resolution can also be used to actually change the curriculum, because in Pakistan our education system actually teaches about hatred, it teaches about violence. It teaches about the glorification of the holy war, so I think that we can use this resolution to change the curriculum so that we can teach young kids about peace, about pluralism, about celebrating diversity, about living together with people and accepting this diversity.

It can also be used even to change the discussions on media, because that’s also playing a role in shaping the mindsets of people. When the situation with Osama bin Laden happened, he was portrayed as a hero by some in Pakistan. Through this resolution, we have to change the mindset of people who are working in media so that we work for peace and we portray young peacebuilders as heroes and not militants as heroes.

One of the key developments from Resolution 2250 will be a global progress report looking at the level of youth contributions to peace processes and conflict resolution. What do you think it will find, and what do you think are the keys to building momentum and ensuring adequate resources for progress?

I think this progress study is very important, and I hope that it will reflect the real situation on the ground related to peacebuilding and youth, peace, and security. I really hope that there will be more examples from the ground of young people being the partners in the peacebuilding processes. They’re already doing a lot of work in different parts of the world: young people are contributing to peacebuilding in different countries; youth are the key to success regarding Security Council Resolution 2250.

I think it will be a step toward working with the member states of the UN to engage young people in peacebuilding processes, to engage young people at decision-making levels—in the negotiations, in peace talks—and also to develop different opportunities for young people so that they can positively contribute toward peace. I think this study can be a document that member states can also use to track their own progress, to see how they are designing different programs, how they are engaging youth in peacebuilding in the coming few years. I think that they will work toward making the countries and the spaces safer for young people. And I hope that there will be more young people coming out and contributing to peace in different countries.

Youth are also seen as critical to the achievement of the UN’s broader 2030 development agenda, particularly regarding gender equality and human rights. What synergies do you see in terms of policymaking and implementation between the 2030 agenda and the recent resolution in elevating the voices of young people?

I can relate to the 2030 development agenda and Resolution 2250 in two ways. One is through Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals—gender equality—and the other is through Goal 16, which is about peace and security. I think that this resolution can be used to achieve those two goals. One way is by engaging young people in peacebuilding processes, making sure that young people participate in peace processes. Not only young men, but also young women. And women face double discrimination because of their age and gender when it comes to participating in peace processes.

I want to add two points. One is regarding resources and member states. There have been millions of dollars already spent on wars and on weapons, and there are always resources for war, but when we talk about peacebuilding and about youth, then we lack funding. Member states should invest more in peace. They should work on funding, they should invest in peacebuilding, and they should trust that yes, young people will bring change in these countries and there will be no more wars in this world.

Another is the peer-to-peer education model we are using in our work, in which we engage young people, and these young people reach out to other young people who are vulnerable to be recruited by the militant groups, and who are vulnerable to violent ideologies. We give them an alternative approach, which is based on non-violence, on pluralism, on compassion, tolerance, and diversity, and we prevent young people from joining their ranks.

Through the platform of Aware Girls, we are working to eliminate the fertile ground for extremist narratives and extremist groups, and we are working on active citizen engagement. We are working to promote democracy and good governance. We are also working to promote interfaith harmony and gender equality, which ultimately leads to peacebuilding in our country.