On a chilly day in November 2006, 136 Muslim women from 26 countries gathered in a New York City for the Women’s Islamic initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) Conference.
Among the women were Nadia S. Malik, a former banker, and her mother Dr. Sarwat Malik, a primary care physician. The women were there to discuss a challenge: There are more than 800 million Muslim women and girls in the world, representing an eighth of the world’s population, but many face challenges in accessing education and employment. The problem persists even in the face of evidence that educating and employing women has positive effects on everything from economic prosperity to public health.
The Maliks wanted to find a way to help improve that access, especially in remote, conservative regions. But charging in with a bankroll and dismissive attitudes about cultural and religious norms was not only going to be ineffective, it could be dangerous for everyone involved. They decided it was best to partner with groups that were already working in these regions, carefully selecting programs and funding them with small grants of up to $10,000.
After working on various projects over the years, in 2012, they unveiled the Global Partnership for Women and Girls with seed money from Sarwat. Their goal was to improve educational and economic advancement of Muslim women and girls.
Over the past two years, the Global Partnership has funded six projects in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Senegal, India and Palestine. Nadia vets each organization herself, sometimes traveling to dangerous areas of the world to meet with non-government organization (NGO) directors, to find out more about their programs and ensure they have an understanding of how to work with local leaders.
"I tell them that my job is to listen and learn. Some of them are used to people who come in with Western ways of thinking, who don’t understand local culture, and say, ‘Do it our way, or don’t get funded,’" she says.
These groups work on varied causes having to do with women’s education, health and well-being. Some groups meet with imams and other religious and cultural leaders to help them understand the economic benefits of educating women and allowing them to obtain some form of employment. One provides micro-loans to allow women to start small businesses, such as sewing.
One such group is the Peace & Education Foundation, an Islamabad, Pakistan based NGO working to promote peace and end religious intolerance. Founder Azhar Hussain works with "hard to reach" people in remote regions, especially religious leaders and women, to help modernize education, incorporating peace education into the curriculum. One of his goals is to increase understanding of tolerance and human rights issues.
In the program the Global Women’s Partnership supported, Hussain works with religious leaders and women to show them that education and employment are not incongruent with conservative Muslim beliefs.
Hussain says that often he encounters communities that believe in education, but where there is a negative view about women and employment. He works on obtaining permission to run a three to four day workshop in the community, with the goal of helping people understand the role education and employment can play in economic stability and in promoting peace. Women trainers show videos and share stories of Muslim women who have helped opened small dressmaking businesses. Employment options are still limited, Hussain admits. But it’s a start.
"Looking at where we're working, in small villages and small towns and very, very conservative religious organizations and people, we have to go slow. We do actually give workshops for men as well and make sure the men are prepared for their women to go through our workshops, about awareness, about their own rights, women rights, and employable skill and education," he says.
As more women are educated and working, communities typically become more accepting of the concept and aren’t threatened by women taking on more roles. Hussain says his organization’s research shows that when a child is raised by an educated mother, he or she tends to also achieve higher levels of education and is more likely become an adult who values peace.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Sarwat passed away in July 2013 from lung cancer, but Nadia is carrying on the Global Partnership’s work with its current projects. She is currently looking for additional organizations with which to work as well as funding relationships that will help the all-volunteer organization support more projects at higher levels.
"[The work] is really simple and it’s gritty and it’s basic. And I think rather than being the ‘empower women of the world’ type of platform you really just need to go in and quietly understand the issues, create awareness in a way that’s appropriate and work with local partners to get the job done effectively," she says.