I'm here to tell you how change is happening at a local level in Pakistan, because women are finding their place in the political process.
I want to take you all on a journey to the place I was raised, northwest Pakistan, called Dir. Dir was founded in the 17th century. It was a princely state until its merger with Pakistan in 1969. Our prince, Nawab Shah Jahan, reserved the right to wear white, the color of honor, but only for himself. He didn't believe in educating his people. And at the time of my birth in 1979, only five percent of boys and one percent of girls received any schooling at all. I was one among that one percent.
Growing up, I was very close to my father. He is a pharmacy doctor, and he sent me to school. Every day, I would go to his clinic when my lessons finished. He's a wonderful man and a well-respected community leader. He was leading a welfare organization, and I would go with him to the social and political gatherings to listen and talk to the local men about our social and economic problems.
However, when I was 16, my father asked me to stop coming with him to the public gatherings. Now, I was a young woman, and my place was in the home. I was very upset. But most of my family members, they were happy with this decision. It was very difficult for me to sit back in the home and not be involved.
It took two years that finally my family agreed that my father could reconnect me with women and girls, so they could share their problems and together we could resolve them. So, with his blessings, I started to reconnect with women and girls so we could resolve their problems together.
When women show up, they bring their realities and views with them. And yet, I have found all too often, women underestimate their own strength, their potential and their self-respect. However, while connecting with these women and girls, it became very clear to me that if there was to be any hope to create a better life for these women and girls and their families, we must stand up for our own rights—and not wait for someone else to come and help us.
So I took a huge leap of faith and founded my own organization in '94 to create our very own platform for women empowerment. I engaged many women and girls to work with me. It was hard. Many of the women working with me had to leave once they got married, because their husbands wouldn't let them work. One colleague of mine was given away by her family to make amends for a crime her brother had committed. I couldn't help her. And I felt so helpless at that time. But it made me more determined to continue my struggle. I saw many practices like these, where these women suffered silently, bearing this brutality. But when I see a woman struggling to change her situation instead of giving up, it motivates me.
So I ran for a public office as an independent candidate in Lower Dir in the local elections in 2001. Despite all the challenges and hurdles I faced throughout this process, I won.
And I served in the public office for six years. But unfortunately, we women, elected women, we were not allowed to sit in the council together with all the members and to take part in the proceedings. We had to sit in a separate, ladies-only room, not even aware what was happening in the council. Men told me that, "You women, elected women members, should buy sewing machines for women." When I knew what they needed the most was access to clean drinking water. So I did everything I could do to prioritize the real challenges these women faced. I set up five hand pumps in the two dried up wells in my locality. Well, we got them working again. Before long, we made water accessible for over 5,000 families. We proved that anything the men could do, so could we women. I built alliances with other elected women members, and last year, we women were allowed to sit together with all the members in the council.
And to take part in the legislation and planning and budgeting, in all the decisions. I saw there is strength in numbers. You know yourselves. Lack of representation means no one is fighting for you. Pakistan is—We're 8,000 miles away from where I'm here with you today. But I hope what I'm about to tell you will resonate with you, though we have this big distance in miles and in our cultures.
When women show up, they bring the realities and hopes of half a population with them. In 2007, we saw the rise of the Taliban in Swat, Dir and nearby districts. It was horrifying. The Taliban killed innocent people. Almost every day, people collected the dead bodies of their loved ones from the streets. Most of the social and political leaders struggling and working for the betterment of their communities were threatened and targeted. Even I had to leave, leaving my children behind with my in-laws. I closed my office in Dir and relocated to Peshawar, the capital of my province. I was in trauma, kept thinking what to do next. And most of the family members and friends were suggesting, "Shad, stop working. The threat is very serious." But I persisted.
In 2009, we experienced a historic influx of internally displaced persons, from Swat, Dir and other nearby districts. I started visiting the camps almost every day, until the internally displaced persons started to go back to their place of origin. I established four mother-child health care units, especially to take care of over 10,000 women and children nearby the camps. But you know, during all these visits, I observed that there was very little attention towards women's needs. And I was looking for what is the reason behind it. And I found it was because of the underrepresentation of women in both social and political platforms, in our society as a whole. And that was the time when I realized that I need to narrow down my focus on building and strengthening women's political leadership to increase their political representation, so they would have their own voice in their future.
So we started training around 300 potential women and youth for the upcoming local elections in 2015. And you know what? Fifty percent of them won.
And they are now sitting in the councils, taking part actively in the legislation, planning and budgeting. Most of them are now investing their funds on women's health, education, skill development and safe drinking water. All these elected women now share, discuss and resolve their problems together.
Let me tell you about two of the women I have been working with: Saira Shams. You can see, this young lady, age 26, she ran for a public office in 2015 in Lower Dir, and she won. She completed two of the community infrastructure schemes. You know, women, community infrastructure schemes... Some people think this is men's job. But no, this is women's job, too, we can do it. And she also fixed two of the roads leading towards girls schools, knowing that without access to these schools, they are useless to the girls of Dir.
And another young woman is Asma Gul. She is a very active member of the young leaders forum we established. She was unable to run for the public office, so she has become the first female journalist of our region. She speaks and writes for women's and girls' issues and their rights. Saira and Asma, they are the living examples of the importance of inclusion and representation.
Let me tell you this, too. In the 2013 general elections in Pakistan and the local elections in 2015, there were less than 100 women voters in Dir. But you know what? I'm proud to tell you that this year, during the general elections, there were 93,000 women voters in Dir.
So our struggle is far from over. But this shift is historic. And a sign that women are standing up, showing up and making it absolutely clear that we all must invest in building women's leadership. In Pakistan and here in the United States, and everywhere in the world, this means women in politics, women in business and women in positions of power making important decisions.
It took me 23 years to get here. But I don't want any girl or any woman to take 23 years of her life to make herself heard. I have had some dark days. But I have spent every waking moment of my life working for the right of every woman to live her full potential.
Imagine with me a world where thousands of us stand up and they support other young women together, creating opportunities and choices that benefit all. And that, my friends, can change the world.