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UNITED NATIONS, May 3: Mukhtaran Mai was hailed as a rallying symbol for oppressed women the world over at the United Nations headquarters on Tuesday where diplomats and officials came to a ceremony to applaud her achievements in the face of daunting odds.

“I think it is fair to say that anyone who has the moral courage and internal strength to turn such a brutal attack into a weapon to defend others in a similar position, is a hero indeed, and is worthy of our deepest respect and admiration,” Under-Secretary-General for Communications Shashi Tharoor said welcoming Ms Mukhtaran, who was invited to the UN by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Pakistan’s UN Mission.

“I am impressed by the commitment shown by the Government of Pakistan to ensure that justice is done in this case,” Tharoor added.

“When Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was at United Nations Headquarters a few months ago, he told me that he had been privileged to receive Mukhtaran Mai himself, more than once, and that he was personally committed to her well-being,” he added.

Praising Mai for her bravery, Mr Tharoor said: “The United Nations has always been, and must always be, a place where champions of the rights of women find a platform, so it is highly appropriate that you are here with us today.”

Mrs Nane Annan, wife of the secretary-general, senior UN officials and a large number of staff members heard her sordid story in a spacious conference hall.

Mai and other Pakistani women who accompanied her to the ceremony wore green Shalwar/Kameez, the colours of Pakistani flag.

Moderating the event, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brian expressed admiration that, after receiving an award from the Pakistani Government of Rs500,000, Ms Mukhtaran returned to the village in which she had experienced such pain instead of leaving the region, founding a school that now has 300 girls and 200 boys, along with a crisis centre that advises women and girls threatened by childhood marriage and other practices.

Questioned by Ms O’Brian and the audience at the UN meeting room, Ms Mukhtaran explained the importance of education for women’s rights. “When (I was pursuing justice) the uneducated people tried to stop me and the educated people supported me, so I thought education was important,” the soft-spoken Mai said through Amna Buttar of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women (AANA), who interpreted for her.

“My slogan is: ‘End oppression with education,’” she added, noting that after her efforts in her rural village, attitudes there have changed quite dramatically.

Mai thanked the Government of Pakistan for all the help extended to her. As a result, she said, there is electricity in her remote village, roads have been constructed and a police post set up. For the past four years, no rape has been reported and domestic violence was also on the decline.

Mai dismissed a question about a statement attributed to President Gen Pervez Musharraf about reasons behind increasing rape cases in Pakistan, saying the president had denied those remarks.

Under-Secretary-General Tharoor, a native of India, recognized the scale of Mai’s accomplishment: “As someone who comes from a country that has also struggled to find ways to overcome dire social challenges and to end the often brutal practices of our traditional pasts without surrendering our unique history and identity, I can assure you that the obstacles that Ms Mukhtaran Mai and her fellow Pakistanis face are not small, and that hers is no small achievement,” he said.