Bogota, Colombia – Tabbasum Adnan was married at the age of 13. By the time she was 20, she had three children. At 33, after suffering years of domestic abuse, she was able to get a divorce.

But she was left homeless and without custody of her children.

Five years later, and the woman from the town of Mingora in Pakistan’s Swat Valley is a celebrated human rights defender.

It all started in 2013, when Adnan established Pakistan’s first women-led council – called the Khwendo Jirga, or Sister’s Council – to represent women in her community.

An independent all-woman group, the Sister’s Council began pressuring police and the courts to take action on previously ignored rape, honour killing and acid attack cases and started providing legal assistance to survivors who had no one else to turn to.

Last week, in the Colombian capital of Bogota, Adnan received the coveted Nelson MandelaGraça Machel Innovation Award for her work. Organisers called it “inspiring”, “brave” and “pioneering”.

Adnan dedicated the award to “all women and mothers in Pakistan and everywhere”.

Al Jazeera spoke to her about her personal journey to activism and the ongoing issues facing women in the Swat Valley.

Al Jazeera: You created the first Sister’s Council in Pakistan. How did you do it? 

Tabassum Adnan: The whole idea of creating the Sister’s Council came about because all existing councils excluded women.

I came across a story of a woman whose very young daughter was attacked with acid. We went to a lot of councils but nobody wanted to support us.

Initially they said they would help us, but nothing ever happened. I thought why not just create one for women? And that’s how the Sister’s Council started.

We were 10 to 12 members [at first] but then we became 25 to 50, and now we are across the entire region. There are almost 1,000 women who come from different regions with their issues and problems, and we try to resolve them between ourselves.

Al Jazeera: Do men listen to the council? 

TA: They listen to us and actually they have to listen to us. We give them no choice now.

There were a lot of objections because our work challenged the status quo. The men had issues that the women were now sitting together making decisions and solving problems.

They actually used to say these women must be smashed and beaten up. But the situation has changed.

Al Jazeera: How did you get them to take you seriously? 

TA: When you actually take it upon yourself and take up a challenge, and decide that nothing can stop you then you overcome that fear.

I can actually look into their eyes and fight because these are our rights. And if you know you are working for the right thing and your direction is right, I think it brings out a lot of confidence, a lot of power within yourself.

And then you feel like nothing can stop you.

Al Jazeera: You were married at 13 and getting to this point has been a major struggle. 

TA: I never experienced my childhood. I never experienced my teen years, because by the time I was 20 I was already a mother of three.

Even my married life was full of torture. It was full of domestic violence, full of things impossible for me to bear. I found no support at my parents’ house.

After 20 years, I made the very hard decision to divorce that man. I faced struggles during that process as well. My own brother threatened to kill me. My father told me “it’s better for you to eat poison” rather than get divorced. Even my own mother, although she knew everything that what was happening in my life, wanted me to die rather than get divorced. But I took the decision despite them.

I had to give up my kids to him. I could not get any assets or the money due to me.

After the divorce, I joined a very small organisation for women, where we used to talk about peace-building and where we spoke about forgiveness.

One day, while I was talking and sharing how important peace is and how important forgiveness is in life, one woman stood up and questioned me. She said, ‘What if a man attacks your own daughter with acid? Are you going to forgive that man too?’

The question left me speechless.

And that is how I started assisting a family whose child had been involved in an acid attack. Her attackers were roaming free.

We protested because the councils were not doing anything. With our involvement, the government was forced to listen and put all those people in jail.

This incident gave us confidence that we could take up other issues. And that’s how the entire platform started.

Al Jazeera: Does the council receive any financial or legal support?

TA: There is nobody who supports us right now.

We have some people who offer legal advice voluntarily. But everything is restricted to when people have time to help.

When we seek help from some legal advisers and advocacy groups, they help and then take all the credit for the cases.

Al Jazeera: What is life like for women and girls in the Swat Valley?

TA: There are issues in my area. There are a lot of issues like honour killings, trafficking, rape, land disputes.

There are problems like some families sending their daughters to other homes in return for solving an issue [a dispute between the families]. So there are issues.

Of course, these types of issues exist everywhere, but I would say because of the cultural taboos, the issues are higher in our area. For example, I’m sitting right now [talking to you] and I’m showing my face. This is a taboo for the people back in my area.

So, for the women in my area to express themselves, to talk about their issues, it’s a big problem for them. It’s not very easy to express their feelings.

There are fathers who bring their daughters to our council and feel very secure that their daughter can share issues and problems with a woman. So it’s very comfortable for them and it’s a very good thing for us that we are able to provide that type of comfort and platform.

Al Jazeera: Does the acknowledgement you’ve received outside Pakistan help or hinder your work at home?

TA: It gets difficult because when I received the International Courage of Women award, I started getting a lot of threats and even now I’m here to receive an award I know that before I reach my country or my region there will be threats ready for me.

They start believing that I am getting a lot of funding or that I am an agent.

But we have so little support from anyone. I am still trying to find someone to help write proposals for us. We can’t even get that. Access to justice is also essential to our work. And we are still battling for that.

So the outside recognition hasn’t changed much for us materially. But people in Pakistan think that I am confident because of the outside support.

Al Jazeera: You are from Mingora, which is also Malala Yousafzai’s home town. Has access to education for girls improved since the Taliban attacked her in 2012? 

TA: It’s not as if there was no education for girls in our region. It was always there. The generation before me, like my parents and my grandparents, were all educated. They were actually very well educated. And one can only be educated if education is available and if there is a presence.

But, of course, if a war starts, nobody would want their children going to school and if I know there are bullets here and there and everywhere I would not tell my child to go study.

Of course, things have changed, the situation has changed and the entire education system will improve.

It’s a very global thing. If things are changing around you, in the country, then the circumstances in your region will change also. I don’t think I can give credit to any particular person for those changes.

Al Jazeera: How do you navigate the difficulties of life in the Swat Valley, while also working to raise the living standards of women? 

TA: I think the first and primary thing that we are trying to address is the awareness within our community.

It’s very important for the people who are living here to be aware, to have a good education. Being educated is empowering.

It allows people to know when religion is being wrongly used. It also allows people to know their rights. Most people don’t know their rights.

It’s not possible to suddenly change a place, and it will come gradually. But for that to happen, it’s very important for women to know their rights and about the things they can fight for.