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Rape victim and women's rights advocate Mukhtara Mai faces new threat in Pakistan

A horrible crime led Mukhtara Mai to establish a women's welfare organization, a women's shelter, and three top schools in rural Pakistan. She faces death threats for her work.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / May 6, 2011

Mukhtara Mai addressed a press conference in Islamabad in 2009. A recent Pakistani Supreme Court ruling set most of her victimizers free.

Adil Gill/PPI/Newscom/File

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Meerwala, Pakistan

It was in this dusty village that Mukhtaran Mai, then an illiterate Pakistani villager, was gang-raped by up to 14 men on the orders of a village council in 2002. Her infraction? Her brother had allegedly committed adultery with the daughter of an opposing clan's feudal lord.

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It's also where she set up a women's welfare organization, a women's shelter, and three of the best schools in the area a year after her ordeal.

But now, says Ms. Mai, as a police guard stands close by, everything her organization has achieved could be threatened by a Supreme Court decision in late April to acquit all but one of her attackers. Amid death threats from powerful feudal lords in her area, several parents have pulled their children from her schools, and Mai is concerned for her own safety as well as that of her staff. Despite it all, or perhaps because of it, she's determined to continue her work.

"The [court's] decision empowers those who oppress women," says the tall, thin Mai, wearing a simple blue traditional dress and flip-flops, as her eyes well with tears.

Her organization has offered some measure of solace to women in an area where feudal lords have ruled with impunity. "They beat people with the help of the police and make the lives of ordinary people miserable," she says. "They hold all power; they are in government and control the courts."

Her shelter has helped thousands of women flee violence and rape since 2003, she says, while the center's outreach work has sensitized people's attitudes in an area long governed by patriarchal feudal traditions. In fact, hundreds of men and women held southern Punjab's first-ever women's rights march in the nearby town of Jatoi last March, a sign of the gradual change in attitudes here.

Mai used the money she collected from her work as a seamstress to open her organization. Mukhtar Mai Women's Organization (MMWO) received its first major donation from the Canadian Embassy in Pakistan in 2003. Last year, money from private donors – including the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, as well as Canada's development agency (CIDA) and its State Depart­ment – totaled more than $200,000.

More than 800 students are currently enrolled in her girls' school. Nasreen Kausar, the school's principal, proudly reports that the first batch of 16-year-olds are to graduate this year and look set to attend university.

IN PICTURES: Behind the veil

In a country where public education is widely regarded as broken, the school offers an unrivaled opportunity in the area. Students are taught in Urdu, Arabic, and English. (Fourth-graders showed proficiency in English, in this reporter's opinion.) The school has a science lab as well as a computer lab.

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