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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December, 2004, 01:12 GMT
School hope for rape victim
By Chiade O'Shea in southern Punjab

Mukhtar Mai hit the headlines in February 2002 as the victim of a gang rape ordered by a Pakistani tribal council in Meerwala, in southern Punjab.

Mukhtar Mai
School is the first step to change the world. It's always the first step that causes the most trouble, but it's the start of progress
Mukhtar Mai
Nearly three years later, she is working to improve the lives of the next generation of girls in the village with two schools she built with her compensation money.

"I didn't want to spend it on myself," she says of the $9,400 payment she received.

"If I lived a luxurious life, then what would happen to the future of the boys and girls?"

Instead, Mukhtar, who had never seen a school before she built her own, decided to fight her battle for women's rights in the classroom.

"Education will play a very, very important role in changing the minds of men," she says.

So she built the Mukhtar Mai School for Girls and the Farid Gujjar School for Boys, named after her father.

Pupils sit on wheat sacks because there are no chairs or desks. The school has no electricity, so they learn in the shade of the classrooms in summer and take classes in the bright winter sun of the courtyard when it gets colder.

Conditions are basic, but the children are happy to be stimulated and learning.

"I'm interested when I'm in school," says four-year-old Samina. "My favourite subject is... English," she says, hazarding a guess at the right answer for her target audience.

The youngest in the class is just two-years-old. "She likes it here, so we let her come in," says Mukhtar, smiling affectionately at the girl, proudly turning the pages of an alphabet book upside down on her lap.

Power struggle

But for each of the 270 pupils in school, two more of the village's children are kept away by their parents.

Mukhtar believes men are scared of being undermined by a better-educated new generation, including stronger young women.

"They think it will lose them power," she says.

Pupils sit on wheat sacks because there are no chairs or desks
For Mukhtar, the schools are an arena to fight for greater female empowerment, but they also give her a reason to live.

"Without these schools, my life would be nothing," she says.

And of the girls, to whom she teaches the Koran: "They are the only charm and light in my life."

When news of the attack against Mukhtar emerged, the international community was shocked that an act of such cruelty had taken place.

However, such attacks are not rare. It is her survival that makes Mukhtar exceptional.

During the same year, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan counted 804 cases of rape, including 434 gang rapes, reported in the media.

Articles describing women committing suicide after sexual attacks appear so often in newspapers that they are usually relegated to a single paragraph far from the front page.

Many more never come to the attention of journalists or police.

Tribal courts, known as panchayats, are effectively the only system of justice in many rural areas of Pakistan.

Individual rights invariably suffer in this ad hoc legal system, which traditionally relies on resolving disputes between whole families. This was the case for Mukhtar Mai.

It was a panchayat that found Mukhtar's younger brother, Shakoor, guilty of raping a girl from the village's powerful Mastoi clan.

False charge

It was later revealed in a conventional court that the 12-year-old had in fact been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by the same men who later made up his jury.

His attackers were later convicted and imprisoned.

The schoolgirls are the "charm and light in my life" says Mukhtar
Mukhtar Mai was taken away to be raped by four men in revenge for her brother's supposed crime. None of the 150 men present responded to her pleas for mercy.

After the attack, Mukhtar says she was suicidal. But she decided not to take her life after more than 200 people from the village came to her house to voice their support.

With the backing of part of her community, albeit a minority, she took the rare step of pursuing the case in court.

The four men who raped her and two other members of the panchayat were given death sentences. They are currently appealing against the decision.

After their conviction, Mukhtar refused to be silenced, even when she faced threats from the rapists' supporters. She now lives under 24-hour police guard.

In spite of the resistance, she decided to continue working for other women's empowerment.

"Even if I don't succeed in my struggle," she says, "I'll keep trying until my death."

She is starting with the girls of her own village.

"School is the first step to change the world," says Mukhtar. "It's always the first step that causes the most trouble, but it's the start of progress."

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