A young girl from Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley is shattering cultural and religious stereotypes to raise awareness about one of the most crucial issues plaguing the region – if not the rest of the world – in recent times: the importance of education over violence.
Although the region was once a popular tourist destination, it became associated with violence in 2007 after the Taliban rose to power and imposed rules with extreme interpretation of Islamic law. They did not only forbid girls from going to school, they even destroyed 200 schools over the next two years and threatened to execute anyone who disobeyed them.
In 2012, a 15-year-old girl named Malala Yousafzai took a stand against the Taliban and became the symbol for girls' education and rights all over the world. Now, another young activist from her hometown is doing her part in changing the destiny of the children of Swat Valley.
Neelam Ibrar Chattan wanted to teach children in the area that there is more than fear and violence around them – that there is still some hope for a brighter and better future. Therefore, at the age of 17, she formed a campaign called Peace for New Generation and started fighting for children’s education.
Her message is straightforward: “Respect the Pen, Not the Gun.”
Chattan started the organization in 2012 and remained the sole volunteer for entire first year. She organized conflict resolution and anti-terrorism workshops that promoted education, arts, and sports. Her campaign soon got traction and now more than 10 volunteers – including local artists, singers and Punjabi minorities – are a part of her initiative.
Peace for New Generation works with about 30 to 40 kids, who are between 12 to 15 years old. Most of these children either work as laborers and attend a religious school, or have families who currently support or have supported the Taliban in the past.
“I teach them about guns and terrorism because we want to finish this and we want to bring peace in this world,” Chattan explained. “Our campaign is against war and we want to build a peaceful and sustainable society.”
The 21-year-old wants to encourage young girls to look beyond traditional careers and become doctors, lawyers, journalists or anything they are passionate about. Although some locals have threatened her for her efforts, she has vowed not to let them deter her from her path.
“Swat doesn’t have any female journalists. Getting an education was really bad, people were scared when the Taliban came,” she added. “Now in Swat, there is a shortage of schools but there is so much demand, especially from girls.”
Chattan also arranges sessions with mothers to raise awareness of the day-to-day lives of their children. She is also planning to hold sessions with government schools and teachers in hopes to take the program nationwide.
The confident young woman may not have a Nobel Peace Prize to her name yet, but she was awarded the European Union-Paiman Trust Gold Award last year in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad for her advocacy work.