A Girl, A Dream, A Mission

A Girl, A Dream, A Mission

Gender inequality is arguably a global obstacle, this issue is of particular concern in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch (HRW), recently ranked this nation as being the second most afflicted by gender inequality worldwide. The causes of gender inequality in Pakistan are multifactorial, but lack of access to educational opportunities is thought to be of particular importance. Estimates suggest there are 22.5 million children between the ages of 5-16 years that are not enrolled in school. 59% of these children deprived of educational opportunity are young women. Addressing women’s educational needs has been and continues to be a crucial component of any intervention aimed at mitigating gender inequality. The lack of religious, social, and facility support is an ongoing barrier to the education of young women in more conservative countries. 

To illustrate a philanthropic organization with demonstrable success at combatting barriers women face in pursuit of education, I turn your attention to the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO). In carrying out their mission to engage, educate and empower women, SSO has supported the education of women by building a school, providing access to medical care, and providing the necessary resources to succeed. SSO currently strives to increase the number of scholarships that are available to support women deprived of educational opportunities. 


Young Pakistani women face many societal barriers in terms of religions and social expectations when trying to obtain an education. In such countries, an ill-equipped education system disproportionately hampers the opportunities for females, since men will receive opportunities to advance, even without education. Islamic sects present many obstacles and barriers that function to suppress the educational opportunities of women in Pakistan enforced through violence by the Taliban. Islamic beliefs culturally engrained into elders stigmatize the pursuit of higher education instead of early marriage. Taliban has coordinated violent and terroristic attacks in Pakistan that have led to 900 schools for girls to close, ending the education of more than 120,000 girls (Human Rights Watch). These attacks have caused such fear that no teacher is willing to teach the girls, much less supply the schools with chalkboards or required books.  

Figure 1: Sonia Shah was exceptional PakistanAmerica who spoke five languages. She knew the value of education and had mission to engage, educate and empower underprivileged girls (1993-2012).

In 2016 at the Let Girls Learn event in London, which discussed female education worldwide, former first lady Michelle Obama noted in her speech, “It’s not just about access to scholarships or transportation or school bathrooms. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs.” These girls have the same bright intellect and work ethic as we do; however, because of their gender, they are treated as second-class citizens who are unworthy of basic education. They are silenced when they protest and are simply shadows in society.


The Pakistani education facilities are illequipped to provide the necessary educational opportunities to mitigate the widespread gender inequality and the suppression of young women. In this country, textbooks are not provided to students in primary and secondary school systems. Instead, grade school-age students must rely upon family financial support to purchase the educational materials that are needed to ensure their success. Given the impoverished state of many families in Pakistan, difficult choices result in which children are properly. As a result, many male children, tend to be supported in their education through purchases of necessary class materials than female siblings. The deprivation of universally available course materials would not be consequential if Pakistani schools uniformly had access to electricity. If this were the case, female students deprived of class materials could benefit from the use of technology and class presentations. The lack of common resources has presented many other untoward effects on the education provided. During seasons of extreme temperatures, the classrooms can become unbearable hot or cold to the discomfort of students. The impact of uncomfortable extremes of temperature in the classrooms has been demonstrated to negatively impact educational outcomes. Furthermore, the lack of continuous access to electricity prevents the routine use of educational technologies, which can enhance the learning process and improve instructional demonstrations (Sarwar, 2019).

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While the gender equality issues described may seem simply too large and complex to solve, SSO has been effectively advocating for the advancement of women since 2012. The SSO was created in memory of Sonia Shah, a young Pakistani heritage whose life was taken far too soon by a car accident. The mission and values of SSO align with Sonia Shah passion to mitigate the gender equalities she witnessed through educational empowerment. In 2013, Sonia Shah Organization partnered with The Human Development Foundation (HDF) to implement the project: HDF-Sonia Shah Memorial School. Sonia’s dream was finally fulfilled on Sunday, October 19, 2014, with the opening of the HDFSonia Shah Memorial School in the village of Kangra in Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Her dream lives on through her family and a dedicated team of volunteers who run the Chicago-based nonprofit organization.


In pursuit of their mission to alleviate gender inequality, the HDF- Sonia Shah Memorial School (SSMS) provides students with educational necessities that were previously unaffordable to female students. The list of freely supplied resources included (but is not limited to) items such as textbooks, uniforms, and technology resources. However, simply having access to the aforementioned educational resources is not sufficient to ensure academic success in an otherwise marginalized population such as female students.

Access to high-quality nutrition has also been shown to improve student success, and due to economic circumstances in Pakistan, this is a common barrier to female student success. Fortunately, SSMS has stepped in to ensure that this need is met. They provide all students with free access to lunch meals that conform to nutritional standards recommended for a healthy lifestyle. Because of generous philanthropy, the students of SSMS now have access to leading educational resources such as kindles, computers, and smartboards among other resources. This windfall of technology freely available to students makes SSMS the first school in Pakhtunkhwa to incorporate such resources. However, access to premier educational technologies, the newest textbooks, finely pressed uniforms, and healthy nutrition would be for naught if SSMS lacked access to electricity and clean water. In this region, access to clean water and electricity is a significant barrier to facilitating educational success. Lack of clean water and electricity could keep women out of school and, consequently, prone to be victims of arranged marriages, and confined to domestic responsibilities. Accordingly, gender inequalities can be mitigated by providing schools with access to electricity and safe drinking water. SSMS has addressed this need through the installation of solar panels and state-of-the-art water filtration systems.

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Another barrier to educational success is the lack of access to high-quality healthcare. And, for a poor family with a daughter and a son, in a male-dominated society like Pakistan, who are they going to shell out the money for healthcare? It would be for the son. Consequently, it needs to be equalized to afford women the most opportunity. To ensure the health and wellness of all SSMS students, therefore promoting gender equality, in 2019, the SSMS invited volunteer physicians to perform checkups on the students. These checkups included checking vitals, administering vaccines, blood testing, eye exams, and supplying vitamins and medications necessary for a healthier life. Besides, they ran tests for malaria, typhoid, dengue, and HIV positive diseases that would normally prevent a student from coming to school, and could even cause the death of their entire family. Each student was supplied with a medical card that could serve as a medical record for future treatment.

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As progressive as the initiatives of SSMS are, there is still a need to remain cautiously pragmatic. Due to prevalent cultural barriers that prevent women from pursuing advanced professions, a woman with the most advanced studies may have no place in current society if devoid of basic domestic skills. To preserve domestic skills during the progressive transformation of Pakistani society, SSMS opened a women’s vocational center. The SSMS endeavors to promote self-sufficiency of the vocational center, so that the educational success a thus social opportunity of women can be maximized by the available funding. Accordingly, products made in the course of teaching domestic skills at the vocational center, are sold at auction in fundraising events such as the annual SSO Gala event held in Chicago.


The aforementioned initiatives are focused on Pakistan, a country with blatant and notorious gender inequality. Despite the emphasis being placed on projects in Pakistan, the Shah Foundation endeavors to mitigate the impact of gender inequality worldwide, and has even extended its initiatives across the USA. One such omit domestic effort is the Sonia Shah

Scholarship program, which offers scholarships to women who are unable to complete their education because of financial burdens. To date, the program has awarded four students with scholarships that allow them to attend either a community college or a private fouryear college. One of the recipients commented that “For any girl, education is extremely important because it can give you an honorable life. It can get you away from being a victim nowadays and being educated makes you independent….it gives you an unconditional power.” In gifting them with all these opportunities, the foundation has not only enlightened but paved the way for a brighter future for these young women, who are now empowered with the opportunity.

In strengthening its effort in the United States, the SSO utilizes its youth ambassadors (a group of women up to the age of 26 years in Chicago), whose sole mission is to advance Sonia’s agenda. The scholarship provides them with training skills that are imperative to develop the leadership necessary to further their mission of making the world a better place. This training enables them to assist their schools and communities. In their monthly meetings, they have a roundtable to discuss new ideas while networking, both professionally and academically. The SSO Vice President has asserted that, while obtaining the necessary support for their voices to be heard, they can inspire confidence in others. Many women with immense potential are left in the shadows in many countries. However, SSO youth ambassadors are quite the opposite; they are given the platform to raise enough concern and share their viewpoints with the rest of the world. They recently attended a SCARF event that allowed them to enhance their leadership and other abilities, for them to demonstrate how they will use them in the workforce.

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Organizations such as SSO are instrumental in combatting systematic gender inequality through empowerment by way of access to educational opportunities. The efforts of the SSO in improving the education of women in Pakistan cannot be overemphasized. As they endeavor to increase their impact in the future, they already have achieved success in providing a better educational environment along with the facilitation of access to clean water, continuous electricity, electronic devices like kindles, healthy meals, basic hygiene items, textbooks, and healthcare. Without these resources, young women are put at a disadvantage to succeed in school and advance their education. These basic comforts allow each student to focus solely on their education as opposed to basic human needs. That is required for survival. As SSO continues to grow and carry out their mission, they aim to increase the number of scholarships they can provide for women afflicted by gender inequality and who cannot afford equal education opportunities. The time is now to eradicate systemic gender inequality that is reinforced by chauvinistic cultural norms. 


To show support for this essential movement, visit [https://soniashahorganization.com/] and donate today. The recommended donation is $30 or more, however, any contribution made no matter how small it will be highly appreciated. Sonia Shah Organization is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, and your donation is tax-deductible within the guidelines of U.S. law. SSO makes efficient and valuable use of all donor contributions in line with its non-profit

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designation. Your donations will be utilized in expanding the SSMS to include other grade levels while still providing essentials such as textbooks, clothing, healthy lunches and access to medical care. Without the continued support, these girls would be more vulnerable to traditional practices resulting in them being married at a tender age, being denied the freedom they deserve to achieve academic success, stymieing their creativity and their intellectual ability would surely go to waste. With only a meager 44% of school-aged girls attending school, the world will unquestionably miss out on future leaders, doctors, and scientists. According to HRW, 56% of the female population in the country is systematically being destitute of the opportunity to obtain an education, thus denying them from fulfilling their academic capability. We must create a future for these young women where we see them taking their places alongside the men as leaders in society. One well-known example of a woman whose success is owned by societal changes promoting gender equality is Malala Yousufzai. Similarly, Sonia Shah without the opportunities in the USA she would not have been able to invoke such a legacy to empower women. As stated in an African proverb stated “if you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a

woman, you educate a notion.” Ensuring that all of the world’s young women have access to equal education, is the key to our survival as a human race. Together, we can support SSO and her efforts to ensure that everyone is included, valued, and a voice is heard in society. Support Sonia’s mission to engage, educate and empower women.

For more information please email info@soniashahorganization.com or contact the SSO at 312 479 2458


1. “Shall I Feed My Daughter, or Educate Her?”: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Pakistan. HRW. Human Rights Watch, 13 Nov, 2018, www.hrw.org/report/2018/11/12/shall-i-feed-my-daughter-or-educate-her/barriersgirls-education-pakistan

2. Sarwar, A., & Imran, M. K. (2019). Exploring Women’s Multi-Level Career Prospects in Pakistan: Barriers, Interventions, and Outcomes. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1376. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01376

3. Asif, U, 26 Oct, 2019. Why is Pakistan facing a crisis in girls’ education? Theirworld.org/voices/Pakistangrls-education-crisis-gender-equality-priority-in-school.

Mr. Zahir Lavji is director of ZL Advisory LLC, a consulting service to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical-devices industries, primarily focused on commercialization. He also mentors healthcare start-up companies, entrepreneurs, university technology-transfer offices, and medical faculty. Having grown up in Africa and managed businesses globally for more than 30 years, Zahir is keenly aware of the important role education plays in personal and social mobility.

In 1972, Zahir left Uganda as a refugee during the mass exodus and emigrated to Canada where he established his new roots. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in pharmacology from the University of Toronto, and his MBA from the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada.

He spent much of his professional career with Abbott Laboratories, an Illinois-based healthcare-innovation corporation working in more than 150 countries, from which he retired as vice president for international marketing. His career included commercializing billion-dollar pharmaceuticals and glucose-monitoring, medical-nutrition and critical-care devices. As regional director for Abbott in Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, he successfully integrated the Knoll acquisition into single Abbott entities. And as president of Abbot Japan, where he spent eight years, he also managed business alliances with major Japanese pharmaceutical companies.

He devotes considerable time and expertise to mentoring healthcare startups from the Chicago Innovation Mentors group; chairs the Supervisory Board of Temple Therapeutics a development stage Biotechnology startup; is an active investor with Hyde Park Angels; is a Consultant with Breuer Partners & Company, a healthcare consulting organization; serves on the review committee for the University of Chicago’s Innovation Fund at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation; and is a panelist for PROPEL-Sikich Investment Banking’s private workshop series.

In addition to pro-bono work in his field, his charitable activities include assisting the Aga Khan Foundation in the Midwest and serving as a standing member of the Alzheimer’s Association Chicago Rita Hayworth Gala.

He lives in Lake Forest, Ill., with his wife Rozmin and daughter Safina.

Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson is a humanitarian and girls’ education advocate. He is the co-founder of Central Asia Institute (CAI), an international NGO that established hundreds of schools, especially for girls, in remote and often volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. He co-authored three New York Times bestsellers about his experiences, Three Cups of TeaStones into Schools and Listen to the Wind. Mortenson grew up with three sisters on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, where his parents helped start a medical teaching hospital and an international school. The family returned to Minnesota in 1973, where Mortenson finished high school. He then served in the U.S. Army in Germany; studied at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., on a football scholarship; and graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1983 with degrees in liberal studies and nursing. For a decade he worked as a trauma nurse, putting in extra shifts to save money for mountaineering expeditions.

The sudden death of his sister Christa from epilepsy led him to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, in her memory. His experiences there changed his life, prompting the creation of CAI and his enduring vision to promote girls’ education around the world. Mortenson left CAI in 2016, but continues to advocate girls’ and women’s empowerment. He says, “You can drop bombs, build roads or put in electricity, but until girls are educated, a society won’t change.”

He has received many accolades for his work, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service and the Sitara-e-Pakistan (Star of Pakistan) medal, and honorary degrees from 16 universities.

He lives in Bozeman, Mont., with his wife Tara Bishop, daughter Amira and son Khyber.

Dr. Sairah Alvi is a scientist, lecturer and philanthropist with a passion for the written word. With a PhD in hematology/oncology and extensive post-doctoral work, she works as a consultant for large pharmaceutical companies and an adjunct faculty member at International Islamic University and Shifa International Hospital in Islamabad, Pakistan and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Sairah’s first love, however, is Urdu literature. She is director of the Urdu Institute of Chicago, which promotes Urdu language and literature, and an ambassador for Pakistan’s National Book Foundation, organizing events at her home for writers, poets and musicians from Southeast Asia and the United States.

She was educated and has lived and worked in the United States, South Africa, England, and Pakistan. Her husband is an English South African physician and chairman of pathology at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill.

Sairah earned her master’s degree in global management from London School of Economics, two masters’ of science degrees in immunology and molecular genetics from the University of Cincinnati, and a PhD in hematology/oncology from Rush University in Chicago. She did her post-doctoral work at the University of Cape Town and the South African Institute of Medical Research in Johannesburg.

She has published over 100 original articles in peer-reviewed cancer journals, and continues to lecture extensively at various universities, medical centers and scientific conferences.

Sairah hosts most SSO board meetings at her home and plays a key role in organizing annual fundraisers, SSO-related events in Pakistan, and visits to Sonia Shah Memorial School in Kangra. Her other charitable activities include support for the ARCS Foundation, dedicated to advancing women in science and technology; and HDF and TCF, which build schools and health centers in Pakistan. She is a member of Good Samaritan’s Festival Committee and her family supports numerous arts and cultural organization in Chicago, including the Chicago Art Institute and Goodman Theatre.

She lives in Oakbrook, Ill., with her husband. They have three children: her oldest daughter is a physician; her son studies economics and international relations at University of St Andrews in Scotland; and her youngest daughter is in high school and aspires to be a lawyer. 

Ms. Iram Shah is a humanitarian and global corporate executive with a career across multiple industries and countries. A senior vice president at Schneider Electric, a global leader in energy management and automation, she also runs the Sonia Shah Organization, started by her late daughter, which focuses on educating and empowering underprivileged girls.

Iram’s corporate career of more than two decades spans numerous Fortune 500 companies — including Schneider, Gatorade, Coca Cola, BP, and Zurich Financial — in five countries in industries ranging from oil and gas to financial services and manufacturing. 

She has served on several nonprofit organization boards, including Seeds of Peace, Central Asia Institute, Schneider Foundation and Chicagoland Habitat for Humanity. She is passionate about girls’ education and women’s empowerment and has been thought leader and keynote speaker at national and international women’s forums. 

Iram earned a master’s degree in business administration from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and is a graduate of Harvard Business School’s Advanced General-Management Program. She was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the UK in 2005one of 11 top international Woman Leaders in Chicagoland by Chicago Women magazine in 2017; received the chancellor’s excellence award from Chicago’s East-West University in 2017.

She lives in Deerfield, Ill., with her husband Mahmood, two sons, and her mother.

Gianni and Giavanna Geati are 11-year-old twins in sixth grade at St. James School in Arlington Heights. Gianni plays basketball and soccer, as well as being a percussionist in the school band. And Giavanna, also a musician, plays piano and percussion in the school band. She also enjoys cooking and sewing. 

A year ago, when Gianni Geati was in fifth grade at Saint James School in Arlington Heights, Ill., his teacher assigned him and his classmates to each “write a news story out someone you know who has done a good deed or performed an act of kindness.” Coincidentally, Gianni, then 10 years old, had just heard about Sonia from his sisters — Giuliana, Liliana and Giavanna. They had just attended SSO’s 2016 fundraising event. 

“When [my sister] told me all about it, I was very inspired about all the things Sonia Shah did,” he said. “The next day in religion class I had to write about somebody who inspired me.”

Here’s what he wrote: 

“This girl, Sonia Shah, went to Pakistan and built a school for girls. In the past, only boys were allowed in school. Sonia helped many other girls go and get their education. She was only 17 years old when she raised money and made the plan to build a school. Unfortunately, Sonia died in a car crash. Her mother then founded the Sonia Shah Foundation.”

In an appearance onstage at SSO’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago, Gianni explained, “I chose to write about Sonia Shah because I have three sisters and I think it’s very important for girls to get education.” 

Shayaan Alvi Borok,16, lives in Oak Brook, Ill., and attends Hinsdale Central High School. “My mom is one of the board members, so she told me about the organization and I wanted to get involved,” Shayaan said. “I support Sonia Shah Organization because it is truly trying to make a difference in Pakistan, a place that I have a strong connection to. I am also a woman and undoubtedly believe that all girls deserve a quality education.”

Shahzmeen Hussain, 22, graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois-Champaign- Urbana, and now lives at home with her family in Skokie, IL.

“I came across Sonia Shah Organization at a dinner gathering over a year ago, where Iram shared the compelling story of Sonia’s sincere vision and goals for the children of Pakistan,” she said. “I come from a family that is dedicated to primary, secondary and higher education, so it was a no-brainer for me to become an ambassador for Sonia’s dream.

“It is true what they say, ‘If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ That change begins here, with us at SSO, and I’m proud to be able to improve the lives of children across the globe,” she said. 

Mehreen Zakeri, 31, immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in February 2017 and now lives in Chicago with her husband. Prior to her move, she worked at the Oil Marketing Company in Karachi, Pakistan. Her decision to volunteer for SSO was sparked by her experience at the organization’s 2017 fundraiser in Chicago.

“During the event, I got to listen to one of Sonia’s letters,” she said. “It touched my heart, and her passion towards girls’ education inspired me to contribute towards this cause. I believe, as I quote John Dewey, an American educational reformer, ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’ Hence, education is the basic right of each child and specifically, an educated girl equals to an educated generation. So, this revolution is so powerful that being a part of it is an honor in itself.”

Enxhi (Angie) Uzeir, 22, studies biology at East-West University in Chicago, and is one of two current SSO scholarship students.

I support SSO for the reasons of enabling me to achieve goals that might otherwise be impossible,” Angie explained. “Through it I became the first person in my family to be able to attend college and follow my dreams.” 

When Rory McKee, a fifth-grader in Evanston, Ill., first heard Iram Shah speaking on the radio, she was stunned to learn that there are places in the world where girls can’t go to school.

“The radio person said there was someplace in Pakistan where girls don’t get to go to school because [their families] need help running the house and doing chores, so they choose their daughters to do that,” she said. That made her mad. “Girls should go to school because boys and girls are the same. Neither one is better. They should both go to school.”

Guided by her mom, Rory went to the Internet to learn more about how Iram’s daughter Sonia had started a girls’ school in a rural Pakistani village

“Sonia’s relatives live in Pakistan, and she visited them and was moved by meeting girls there that didn’t go to school,” Rory said. “[Sonia] wanted to do something about it. And I thought, there are a lot of people at my school. I could do something there. I wanted to get more money so more girls could go to school.”

So she did. Then a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, she raised $200 for the Sonia Shah Organization (SSO). She said she wanted to tell these girls “that other people in the world care about them, their education.”

Zuleyma Cordero, 25, is a Sonia Shah Scholarship Program recipient, attending Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill. and on track to graduate in spring 2018 with a double major in accounting and business. She also works full-time and volunteers for SSO.

The first person in her family to go to college, she has said that Sonia’s legacy provides constant motivation, she added.

I think of what a great inspiration Sonia was and still is to this day,” Zuleyma said. “I like to reflect on how she is changing lives of young girls, including myself. And that it all started with the passion she had, and with the idea of making history. She didn’t give up at the sight of any difficulty, she pressed forward to achieve her goal.”

Zuleyma’s volunteer work includes help with fundraising campaigns and events.