From where I stand: “Peace is not an overnight miracle. Everyone needs to contribute to build peace”

Saba Ismail started working on peacebuilding in Pakistan when she was 15 years old. The perceptions about young people is a major barrier to their engagement in peacebuilding, she says, as their work is not taken seriously. The heightened insecurity makes it even harder for young women. Still, she hopes to see diversities celebrated and everyone contributing to peace.

Date: Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Saba Ismail. Photo: Angela Catlin
Saba Ismail. Photo: Angela Catlin


I come from Peshawar, a province in the north-west Pakistan, where extremist and radical groups are very active. I went to a private school, but still, often religious intolerance was part of the narrative there. We were taught that it was a sin to eat from the same dish or even shake hands with non-Muslims.

I would have grown up believing in that narrative, that jihad is about justice, if not for my father. He always taught us to celebrate diversity. He started taking me and my sister to progressive meetings when we were teenagers.

In one such meeting, I heard the testimony of a mother who had received the dead body of her missing 13-year-old son. He had been taken away to join the jihadis, without her consent. That day, the truth sunk in—this is not a fight for justice!

My sister and I started Aware Girls when we were 15 and 16 years old, so that young people could be engaged in a different narrative of peace and coexistence. We established the Youth Peace Network and using a peer education model, taught young people peacebuilding and conflict resolution skills. We also worked with young people who were at risk of being recruited by extremist groups.

The hardest thing for me is the continuous threats and lack of security that I face, and which extends to my family. We encountered so many threats, because we worked on peacebuilding…The whole family had to move from Peshawar to Islamabad. Now I live in New York, but the threats continue.

The space for young women to work on peacebuilding is shrinking as we speak. They are not part of any peace negotiations. Women administering polio vaccinations have been attacked and killed by militant groups. Imagine that!

Peace is not an overnight miracle. Everyone needs to contribute to build peace. For me, peace means people feel safe in their homes, on the streets, in the markets, in their mosques and their temples. It means celebration of all our diversities.”

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Saba Ismail, 29 years old, is the co-founder of Aware Girls, a youth and women-led organization, working to empower young women and promote gender equality and peacebuilding in Pakistan. To date, the network has engaged some 600 young people in north-west Pakistan and is now active across the border, in Afghanistan. As a member of the Advisory Group for the Youth, Peace and Security Progress Study of the UN Secretary-General, which examines the contribution of youth to peace processes and conflict resolution, Ms. Ismail participated in a side event organized by UN Women at the Youth CSW in March 2017. Her story demonstrates the critical need to engage youth and young women in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16, which aims to build peaceful and inclusive societies.

Read more stories in the “From where I stand...” editorial series.

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