As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, it is important opportunity to recognize that women globally have made significant gains. And it is also time to strive for even more.
I feel tremendously fortunate to have met so many inspiring Pakistani women in my visits to villages and cities all around Pakistan. Whether it was women farmers eager to experiment with planting or Lady Health Workers who explained their efforts to bring care to rural populations, I have seen in Pakistan’s women tremendous talent, compassion, and perseverance.
Despite the progress, vast inequalities persist. The potential of women to contribute to economic growth and prosperity, social progress, peace, and good governance is still untapped in too many places. Gender-based violence destroys the lives of individual girls and women, families, and communities in Pakistan, as it also robs the world of urgently needed talent. If we are to build a more peaceful, prosperous, and just world, we cannot leave half the population behind.
This week, as the world marks International Women’s Day, there was a particularly important symbol of the opportunity for further progress for Pakistan’s women. First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led a celebration in Washington, D.C. to announce the International Women of Courage Awards to 10 honorees from around the globe. One of those is a brave and pioneering Pakistani women is Ghulam Sughra from Sindh Province. I am so proud to see Pakistan honored in this very visible way.
As a young girl, Sughra overcame discrimination in her village to become the first female high school graduate and the first teacher at the first local school for girls. She then created the Marvi Rural Development Organization, a non-governmental organization focused on creating community savings funds and raising awareness of education, health, human rights, and social development issues. While originally focused in her home village, Ghulam has expanded her work to the rural areas of Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan provinces.
Ghulam and the other Women of Courage honorees represent women all over the world who work every day against corruption and injustice, and who fight for human rights, good governance, and economic opportunity. They are agents of change. Overcoming poverty, discrimination, and violence, they champion the rights of women and girls, and serve as an inspiration to us all.
Pakistan can boast of a rich history of female leaders who dramatize the power of women to change history for the better, including Fatimah Jinnah and Benazir Bhutto. Islamic principles hold a deep respect for a woman’s place in society. The Holy Quran highlights many important women, such as the Prophet’s wife, and names a chapter after a woman (Mary, mother of Jesus). Islam provides special rights for women and bestows special blessings on mothers, according to the Prophet’s sunnah.
When women make progress, countries make progress. A mountain of research shows that investments in women directly alleviate poverty and increase prosperity. The most effective development investment is the education of a girl. Educating a girl offers enormous positive consequences for her future, her family’s future, and her nation’s future.
That is why it is so important for Pakistan, like other countries, to nurture the talents, aspirations, and leadership of all its women. Today we celebrate the contributions of women in Pakistan and around the world. Everywhere they are making a difference. Many, like Ghulam Sughra, do so with great courage and often at great personal risk. All of them are changing our world for the better.
Dr. Marilyn Wyatt is the wife of U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter and works for the United States Agency for International Development in Pakistan.