A Pakistani woman named Mukhtar Mai made news around the world in 2002 when she took a group of men to court after they raped her in what they called "honor revenge" against her family because of something Mai's brother had done. Denouncing their actions and seeking legal recourse made her stand out in a society where women aren't traditionally encouraged to advocate for themselves.
With the settlement money Mai received from the case, she built a school and a women's center, the Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organization, which the IRC supports through technical assistance and capacity building.
One of the school's first students was Sidra, a brilliant fourth grader who always earned the highest marks in her class. Despite her ambition to pursue an education, Sidra's parents arranged for her to get married.
When Mai and her staff learned of this, they met with Sidra's father to persuade him not to follow through with the plan, and promised to intervene legally on Sidra's behalf if her father refused. Sidra's father was persuaded, and allowed his daughter to continue going to school. Today the girl is in 9th grade, and plans to go to college and be a doctor.
"The school [opened in 2003] with one room and three students, and now there are 600 students," Mai says. "When we started the school we had to go door to door to convince parents to send the girls to school...many times the parents closed their doors."
It's been a slow process, but Mai, along with IRC staffers supporting the organization say attitudes towards educating girls here are changing. "Parents now feel education is something important. They saw the changes in the lives of the children, they see their girls studying, reading and writing," she said. "Earlier, the parents thought that everyone should work in the field but now they see that the girls can work in the office, be a teacher."
The women's welfare organization provides a variety of resources in this region, such as a shelter for abused women, a helpline that offers information and support, advocacy and awareness programs, and legal aid.
Over the last months world attention has focused on the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who have returned to their homes in Pakistan's conflict-ridden Swat Valley. The IRC is helping these people rebuild their communities and lives, but also those hundreds of thousands of others who remain displaced by anti-Taliban military offensives. Displaced women especially face heightened risks of violence as they live precariously and with little access to health and social services they need.
"The current crisis in Pakistan has affected the women and girls the most," says Mai. "They are not treated equally. In many cases they are not even considered as human beings."