Armed with only a slightly used copy book sent by her aunt from Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtoomkhw'a province, Azeera Gul, 12, is fighting for the rights of girls to an education.
Although her school in the tiny town of Kabal in the Swat Valley is still in a ramshackle state after being burnt down during the Taliban insurgency in 2008, which ended in 2009 after a Pakistan military operation, Gul insists she wants to become a school teacher and educate other girls in her village.
Gul is not alone in wishing to bring change to her valley. One story that galvanized the international media is that of Malala Yousafzai. In 2009, she began campaigning from her remote village in Shangla in Swat against the Taliban for the right to education for girls.
She was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize, presented annually by the Dutch organization KidsRights, for her pioneering efforts to raise awareness about the treatment of girls in her homeland. Though she did not win the award, her nomination brought home the problems of Swat to millions in the country and won her national recognition with an award from the prime minister.
“This award is a great prize for me. I want education for the girls of Swat,” Yousafzai, now 13, told IRIN.
She is not the only young campaigner. “I want to become a doctor,” said Ludia Bibi, 14, in Mingora. “That is the only way I can help people here and make sure women in particular get the care they need.”
Maria Toor Pakai, 19, grew up in South Waziristan, where women rarely venture out of their homes. She defied tradition by playing squash and is today a top-ranked national player.
“I knew my daughter was different and wished to encourage her,” said Maria's father, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, who took her to Peshawar in 2002, eager to grant her the opportunity she would have been denied at home. “We had received threats from the Taliban warning us to stop her playing,” he told IRIN.
Today, Pakai lives and trains in Toronto, her story inspiring others. “I always think of the hard rocks of my land, and how tough they made me,” she said.
But while such young women have fought back, others find it harder to do so. “I want my daughters to have a better life than I do, but it is hard here,” said Ujala Gul, 40, a mother of three girls who lives in a village near Saidu Sharif, the capital of Swat. “I am afraid they will end up as powerless housewives just like me, subservient to their husbands.”
Even so, the girls seem more determined than the boys given the harder struggle that lies ahead for them and the struggle they have had to gain any education at all.
“I feel I must do something with my life. Things here must change, otherwise lives for girls and women will never ever change,” Samira Ahmed, 12, told IRIN. She is helping to run classes near Kabal for girls who are not able to go to school.
“There are so many little girls here who could change the future. I have educated daughters and I know they can change the lot of a family. That's why I want to help all those that I can,” said Mullahzai Tauqir, 65, a grandfather and retired teacher who now runs voluntary classes for out-of-school children near Mingora. “I think my efforts and theirs will one day make a real difference and create real change here.”