Spotlight on Maryam Bibi, an extraordinary woman, on International Women’s Day

The twittersphere is abuzz today with tweets from people, government agencies, and NGOs celebrating International Women’s Day.  The call to continue working to improve health and human rights for women across the globe is loud, clear, and multi-voiced.  And although much still remains to be done for women in developed and developing countries alike, the voices of high-profile women and the tireless work of individuals and organizations committed to bettering the lives of women are making great strides.

But while governments and large aid machines attract most of the attention given to work in women’s health, it is often the work of individuals that is the most moving.  Amid all of the “#internationalwomensday” tweets over the course of the day, the one that caught my eye was the Acumen Fund calling attention to Maryam Bibi, an extraordinary woman who has worked for women’s health and education in Waziristan since 1993.

Maryam Bibi, a Pakistani woman, wearing a white shawl and holding a book.
Image courtesy of the Times Online.

Ms. Bibi set up Khwendo Kor (a phrase in Pashto meanings “Sisters’ Home”), an agency in Peshawar that works with women in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province to improve their education, health, and economic well-being.  The organization began in one village with four staff members; now it works in more than 300 cities and has over 340 staffers.1,2,3  Khwendo Kor focuses primarily on social organization, community-based education for women, microcredit, primary health care, and advocacy, and it collaborates with men and local leaders to accomplish its goals.1  It has trained 180 young women as village-based teachers and established 170 community schools, and over 200 women have been given opportunities to begin small businesses through microcredit.2,3  Through her schools, approximately 6,500 girls have been educated, and 3,500 are currently enrolled.3  She has received multiple awards for her work, including the Fatima Jinah Medal (2003) for outstanding women in the social sector and the Star of Excellence National Civil Award (2001) in Pakistan, the UN’s Recognition of Services award (2000), and the ILO’s Human Rights Award (2001).1,2,3

Despite international honor and recognition for her work, Ms. Bibi still faces considerable opposition and danger close to home.  While she enjoys walking to work, she says that “the office vehicle often collects me.”4  Radical religious organizations slander Khwendo Kor through mosques and local media.  Children’s learning centers established by the organization have been blown up.  Their vehicles have been stolen, staffers have been shot at, and fatwas have been issued against them.  Ms. Bibi can no longer stay late in her office because of death threats.  Still, she is not deterred.  “Some people say that I am an elderly lady and that I should be ashamed of myself doing this work: that I should be sat at home and saying my prayers. But as an elderly woman I would like other elderly women to join me because this work is a matter of our children and our future generations and we have to do something to bring about change.” 2