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Canadian Federation of Business & Professional Women's Club of Ottawa - February 7, 2013


Good evening everyone,

Thank you for having me here. I am honoured to have been invited to speak on the topic of international women’s rights and equality. This is something I can describe firsthand through my own experiences.

I was born and raised in Pakistan, moving to Canada after getting married in 1980. I have always maintained close ties with both countries – one my country of birth, and the other my adopted homeland where I had my two daughters.

Whenever people ask me about Pakistan, I tell them the one thing that always sticks with me is the strength of Pakistani women in the face of adversity. I have been moved by their tenacity and their sacrifice.

I have seen women widowed at young ages who devote their lives to their children and their families. I have met with women in internally displaced campsites in the Swat Valley. I have visited women whose homes were destroyed by floods. In all cases, these women show remarkable courage and do not give up hope.

These are strong women who take part in all aspects of life – domestic, social, educational, political, and others.

However, the lives of Pakistani women and girls could still be improved, especially with regards to education.

There is an education crisis in Pakistan. At least 7 million Pakistani children are not in primary school, and 3 million will never see the inside of a classroom.

In my home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, children will not receive their constitutional right to education until 2064, at the current rates of progress.

Education levels in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are especially low among girls, where formal literacy is between 3 to 8%.

The reality is that there are social norms which discourage female education. This is disheartening when we know that the largest return on investment in education is among girls – where families are proven to be smaller and children are proven to be healthier.

In light of this, we must keep in mind that the education of boys is also a priority, since in that society, girls rely on the support of their fathers, brothers and husbands. If the men are educated and encourage the education of women, the women are more likely to do it.

I use the example of myself, where I was encouraged because my husband was so supportive of my career.

Many of you have heard of Malala Yusufzai, a young girl who began blogging for the BBC at the age of 11. Using an assumed name, Malala courageously described her life and the oppression she faced under Taliban rule. She went to school in secret, with her books hidden under her clothes.

Malala wanted what any girl her age would want: the right to an education, to go to school, to learn. She became the voice for the girls in the Swat Valley.

Because of this, Malala and two of her schoolmates were attacked by the Taliban this past October. Since then, Malala’s story has touched me and millions around the world. A worldwide petition is even being circulated to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I visited with Malala and her family in November. I wanted to convey my respect to this young girl for her courage in telling her story, the story of the girls of Pakistan. I wanted her to know that Canada stood behind her and her fight for the rights of women and girls.

In the Senate, I have initiated a motion to support Malala and offer solidarity with girls and young women everywhere whose absolute right to equality of opportunity and quality education - in every country of the world - must be universal and real. If one brave young girl can be so inspiring, imagine what all of us could do together!

It is encouraging to see things moving in a positive direction. In Hunza, Pakistan, 8 girls recently climbed mountain peaks together and decided to climb the highest peak without the help of men. It is inspiring for the country to see girls like this and girls like Malala.

Canada has also been crucial in moving things in a positive direction.  I recently attended a conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Quebec City, with over 1300 delegates from 162 member parliaments. I lead a session on gender-sensitive parliaments, a topic that was to be discussed for the first time. With the 20th century, one of the greatest changes to democracy has been women’s increased participation in politics, both as voters and members of parliament.

With Canada’s recent role in Afghanistan, I was exceptionally pleased to see not one, but four women as part of the delegation from that country. This came after the Senate committee on Human Rights, on which I sit, had studied women’s engagement in Afghanistan post-conflict.

With the efforts of inspirational girls like Malala and nations like Canada, things are gradually improving for women. I am delighted that there are organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women to ensure those efforts do not go to waste. I commend you on your efforts in advocating for the potential of women in Canada and internationally.  

I hope that today I have given you a glimpse into the lives of women and girls in Pakistan and that area of the world.

Let us continue to work together and build bridges to empowerment. Thank you.