Tomorrow is a very important day in Pakistan’s history: February 12, National Women’s Day. On this day, 31 years ago, hundreds of women defied the ban on public assembly and marched peacefully before the Lahore High Court to protest a law that limited the legal rights of women. It was the first time in the history of Pakistan that women came out of their homes to assert their full and equal rights. The courage of these brave women is truly inspiring.
During my time in Pakistan as the United States Ambassador, I have had the honor to meet remarkable Pakistani women and to witness the courage and strength of the women of Pakistan, the vision and determination of female parliamentarians, and the vibrancy of Pakistan’s civil society – especially women’s organizations. Through their leadership, more girls are going to school, more expecting mothers have access to prenatal care, more women entrepreneurs are starting and growing businesses, and more women and girls are speaking out against gender-based violence, including early and forced marriage, exchange marriages, and so-called honor crimes. Significantly, more men are also speaking out against gender-based violence.
From Pakistan’s history, leaders such as Fatima Ali Jinnah helped pave the way for Pakistani women. We recognize that Pakistan has a rich history of women leaders, from the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim country, Benazir Bhutto, to the first female speaker of the National Assembly, Fahmida Mirza. There are hundreds of other female doctors, teachers, academics, businesswomen, scientists, athletes and activists who demonstrate the strong contributions women can make to society.
In fact, women from Pakistan are reaching exciting new heights, including a young woman who, at age 23, became the first Pakistani woman to summit Mount Everest last year. Another amazing athlete is a 19-year old rock climber who won her 28th national rock climbing competition— against the boys, and fought for the right to compete against them in the first place.
Hundreds of other courageous women are addressing social issues and tackling violence and discrimination, including the first ever Pakistani to win an Oscar for the film “Saving Face.” While the film highlights the horrific practice of acid-violence, it also celebrates the human spirit by showing how brave survivors and female members of Parliament worked together to address this problem. Other young women are fighting to improve Pakistan’s education system, and are working for organizations like Teach for Pakistan, which is helping to raise the quality and standards of government-run schools in some of the most challenging neighborhoods in Karachi.
Tomorrow, on National Women’s Day, we will welcome the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, who will visit Pakistan for the first time. She will no doubt be impressed by the array of accomplishments Pakistan’s women have been able to advance despite the odds. She will see how female parliamentarians have set aside political differences to pass landmark legislation including the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, the law strengthening penalties for acid attacks, and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act (which outlaws practices such as the exchange of women and girls to settle disputes, and depriving women of their inheritance).
Ambassador Russell’s visit is important because it demonstrates how the United States has made women and girls a cornerstone of our foreign policy. We recognize that the major security, economic, environmental, and governance challenges that all nations face cannot be effectively addressed without the full participation and empowerment of women. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, “No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind.”
During the 16-Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign that took place from November 25-December 10 last year, I participated in numerous events that the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad organized, including a training event for police officers on the new sexual harassment law and a workshop with school children to discuss how to prevent violence against women. At the workshop, we discussed the impact of gender-based violence and signed pledges to avoid and prevent violence against women.
We all have a collective responsibility to empower girls to speak up for themselves, and to educate boys to speak up for their sisters and mothers. We need to support greater advocacy efforts and increased interaction between policy makers and those who work in the field. We must support the inclusion of men, boys, and critical community stakeholders – such as religious leaders – in addressing and preventing violence and changing gender norms and attitudes. And we must, ultimately, overcome the deep-rooted gender inequalities that either tacitly allow or actively promote practices that are so damaging to women and girls around the world. As Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.”
On Pakistan’s National Women’s Day, the United States salutes the accomplishments and courage of all Pakistani women. I look forward to showing Ambassador Russell how Pakistani women are indeed powerful leaders, who are truly building better lives for themselves and future generations.

The writer is United States Ambassador to Pakistan.