As a human rights activist from Pakistan, Shad Begum gives us great insights into her courageous journey to create better lives for women and girls.
Despite being born and raised in a conservative area, I didn’t back away from gaining an education, fighting the societal norms, and championing women’s rights in my area – Lower Dir, located in the northwest of Pakistan. My father and later my husband became my support and didn’t let me follow the fate of other girls in that area who are destined to the traditional roles. Rather, they encouraged me to be educated – no matter how much people criticized them for supporting me in my ‘uncommon’ accomplishments.
Deeply impacted by the social inequalities and inspired by my father’s social work during my early years, I established a not-for-profit organization – the Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT) – to advance the economic and political empowerment of women and marginalized communities. My journey is still continuing and becoming more important to me each passing day because of the change I am witnessing in women’s lives in my region. Previously in my hometown, it was unacceptable for women to take part in the social and development processes and girls’ education was not readily accepted, but now young girls are becoming journalists, sports players, politicians, and business women. My dream is for an equal society, where women and girls can utilize their skills and capabilities. Women and girls have already proven that they are capable of excelling in any sector once they are considered as equal citizens.
However, the day I started working as an activist on the ground, I realized that first of all we must understand our own worth as women. If we, ourselves, underestimate our strength, potential, and self-respect, no one is ever going to accept us or give us space. We must stand up for our rights, instead of waiting for somebody else to come and help us. Regardless of various challenges and life threats, I have continued my efforts for social change and the empowerment of women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a special focus on Malakand Division, a region that is affected by both manmade and natural disasters. I choose to persevere because giving up would be the easy way out, whereas the right thing is to keep going.
During my journey, I meet women across the world at various occasions, and listening to their stories of struggle is always powerful. Most of the time, I feel that women are facing very similar issues and situations, no matter which part of the world we are living in. This is the bond that always connects us, as women, together. During my work, I often realize the importance of unity and building collaborations with likeminded forums, especially women, and I feel very lucky to be well connected around the world. In our current society, men are the decision makers; I believe that until we engage, sensitize and motivate men – not only to stop but also to stand against all forms of harassment or violence against women – we cannot eradicate these acts.
I feel more encouraged and determined whenever I receive acknowledgment for my work both nationally and internationally. The first international recognition I received was the Prize for Creativity in Rural Life, awarded by the Women’s World Summit Foundation in 2008. To me, it was a great moment of happiness when I came to know that one of the local journalists sent my story for this award. It is priceless when your own people from your area support and admire your work.
In 2012, I received confirmation that I had been nominated for the International Woman of Courage Award from the US Department of State. I felt hugely proud to be chosen among ten other women from around the world to be given this prestigious award. While accepting it was a great honour, it was also very challenging because I was always portrayed as an American agent. Most of my family members and colleagues were worried that this award might increase challenges for my family and me. However, I preferred to receive the recognition and set an example for local girls and women that the sky is the limit. On the day that the award was officially granted to me, I received an open threat from Ehsanullah Ehsan (the Taliban’s spokesman), who had surrendered himself to Pakistan’s security agencies in April 2017. He had also claimed responsibility for the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani activist, who was famous for highlighting Taliban atrocities and is now championing education for girls around the world.
On my return to Pakistan, people from my town and across the country poured out to meet and talk to me. I remember one of the men from my village telling me that when he had seen me on television receiving the award from Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, he had literally started to shout and called for his daughters, wife, and mother to come over and watch because I was a role model for them. This is what I had been dreaming of all my life – to tell the girls of my very own small and remote town that we can make it happen. The only thing we need to do is to believe in ourselves and move on.
During the past 25 years, I have learned so many life lessons. However, let me share this key lesson – that you, as girls and women, do need to believe in yourself. Challenges are there to sharpen life skills so that we are prepared for the future. Thus, in your struggle be humble to both yourself and life, don’t get hurt or disappointed, and instead, keep the hope alive and never give up.
Shad Begum is a women’s rights activist from the northwestern part of Pakistan – an area plagued by religious militancy and instability over the last 14 years. Against all odds, she has stood up for the rights of women in a deeply religious and culturally conservative environment, which has earned her global recognition. Due to her outstanding contribution to the promotion of women’s rights in Pakistan, Shad has received several national and international awards including the Prize for Creativity in Rural Life, awarded by the Women’s World Summit Foundation in 2008, and the US Department of State’s International Woman of Courage Award in 2012. Shad is a lifetime Ashoka fellow, Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Acumen Fellow, and Ambassador for Female Waves of Change in Pakistan. She has also been nominated to give her first official TED talk at the TEDWomen conference in California in 2018.