Don’t let the Taliban win the battle over girls’ education


SALMIYA, Kuwait — Malala Yousafzai is not unique. Millions of girls live in places where people don’t think girls should be educated, where female children are not valued except as marriageable commodities, and where rape, honor killings, physical mutilation, and other forms of abuse against girls and women are ignored or even approved.

What makes the 14-year-old Pakistani girl different is that she spoke out, with eloquence and courage beyond her years. And because she spoke out, she lies in a British hospital, after Taliban terrorists shot her in the head and neck.

Malala is improving. She is awake, able to stand with the help of nurses, and communicating in writing (there’s a tracheotomy tube down her throat). Doctors won't know about intellectual or motor deficits for a while, but the prognosis is good.

According to a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization released last week, fewer girls than boys — often significantly fewer — attend school in at least 60 nations. The annual report of UNESCO’s Education For All effort concludes that progress has been made toward achieving its goal of universal primary education by 2015, but that there still is a long way to go.

There are many reasons for persistent gender inequity in education around the world. According to the Web site, more than 3.6 million girls under the age of 15 are married — usually not by choice — every year. Most leave school, and never return.

Millions of young girls don’t go to school because they have to work, often as part of a family enterprise. Millions more are victims of human trafficking. And according to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a report on, 28 million children — boys as well as girls — live in refugee camps where there are no teachers or schoolbooks.

Malala’s case was somewhat different. Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where she lives, was controlled in 2009 by the Taliban, religious fundamentalists opposed to the education of women. They ordered that girls’ schools such as the one Malala attended be closed.

While most people remained silent out of fear, Malala spoke up. She insisted that she had the right to sing, to speak, and to be educated.

She started a blog, which was published under a pseudonym by the BBC. After her identity was revealed, the world transformed her into a symbol of rejection of the Taliban’s rigid reading of Islam, and the more general discrimination faced by many girls around the world.

Malala was interviewed numerous times, including by CNN. The New York Times did a documentary on her. She was a finalist for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011, and the recipient of Pakistan’s first-ever National Peace Prize.

She was a star, a creation of her courage and love of learning, her father’s social activism, and the international media’s attraction to a compelling story told by a lovely young girl.

That made her a threat. So a Taliban hit squad was sent to eliminate her.

The Taliban do not reflect the attitude of all Muslim countries. Universal education of all citizens has been guaranteed by Kuwait’s constitution for 50 years. Girls and boys are required to attend school until the age of 14. Public school is free through college.

But in Pakistan, the Human Rights Commission reported that nearly 800 women were the victims of honor killings in 2010, and 2,900 girls and women were reported raped. Many assaults are not reported.

After the attack on Malala, thousands of young people took to the streets in Pakistan, India, and elsewhere. Many carried signs with anti-Taliban messages.

Others wore T-shirts that proclaimed “I am Malala.” Many schools in Pakistan closed in protest, but I suspect that Malala would rather they continued to teach girls in defiance of Taliban threats.

That level of anger and involvement is difficult to maintain. In 2002, a Pakistani woman named Mukhtaran Mai was gang-raped in Punjab province. The world expressed its outrage. In the bright light of international media coverage, six of her attackers were convicted and sentenced to death.

Justice proved fleeting. In 2005, when the world’s attention had moved on, one rapist’s sentence was commuted to life in prison; the other five men were acquitted. Last year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Doctors in Britain don’t know whether Malala will recover completely. But her fight must continue, especially after the cameras are turned off and the reporters inevitably leave. Otherwise the Taliban win, and Malala becomes another Mukhtaran Mai.

Kendall F. Downs, a former associate editor of The Blade, lives and works in Kuwait.

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