Pakistan’s Shad Begum was among 10 of the world’s leading women activists the United States honoured on Thursday for their efforts to improve the lives of other women. Shad Begum of Lower Dir district, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, received the 2012 International Women of Courage Award, at a ceremony in Washington, for working for women in a deeply conservative area. The region was run briefly by the militants before the Pakistan Army cleared it in May 2009.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama presented the awards.
Secretary Clinton noted that all 10 women had worked tirelessly to improve the lives of women and girls, sometimes at great personal risks.
Some of them were also imprisoned and abused for their efforts, she noted.
Mrs Obama noted that these courageous women refused to accept the status quote, and instead chose to remake the world “as they know it should be”. Ambassador Sherry Rehman, who also attended the ceremony, said Pakistan’s democratic government had enacted a series of legislative measures to protect and advance women’s rights.
“We passed legislation criminalising sexual harassment in the workplace. We passed legislation making it mandatory to appoint neutral mediators at all levels to adjudicate charges of sexual discrimination,” she said.
“Another revolutionary legislation made it illegal to deprive a woman of her rightful inheritance, made it illegal to force a woman into marriage to settle a civil or criminal dispute; and banned compelling or arranging or facilitating a woman’s marriage to the Holy Quran.”
In a brief biographical sketch, the US State Department introduced Shad Begum as “a courageous human rights activist and leader who has changed the political context for women in the extremely conservative district of Dir.”
As founder and executive director of Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation, Ms Shad provides political training, microcredit, primary education, and health services to women.
Ms Shad not only empowered the women of Dir to vote and run for office, she herself ran and won local seats in the 2001 and 2005 elections against local conservatives who tried to ban female participation.
“Despite threats, Ms Shad continues to work out of Peshawar to improve the lives of women in the communities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” the State Department noted.
Another recipient, Maryam Durani of Afghanistan, comes from the Kandahar province, among the country’s most conservative and most dangerous areas.
“But that has not stopped Ms Durani from speaking out for the rights of Afghan women and girls,” the State Department noted.
As a member of Kandahar’s Provincial Council, director of the non-profit Khadija Kubra Women’s Association for Culture, and owner and manager of the only local, female-focused radio station, “she is both a leader and a role model for women throughout Afghanistan”.
A true woman of courage, Ms Durani has survived multiple attacks on her life, including a suicide attack in 2009 that resulted in serious injury. Although she continues to face regular threats, “she is undeterred in her mission to promote basic civil rights for all Afghans”, the State Department noted.
Other award winners include Hana Elhebshi, a political activist from Libya, Samar Badawi, left, a political activist from Saudi Arabia, Aneesa Ahmed of Maldives, Hawa Abdallah Mohammed Salih of Sudan and Safak Pavey of Turkey.
This piece was originally published on Dawn.com and is reprinted with permission.