Sunday, October 20, 2013

Malala Yousafzai and the Fight for Female Education

The girl enters the studio stage left, and the crowd goes wild. She is dressed in traditional Pakistani garb, poised, smiling, and impossibly mature. The next 16 minutes make you alternately want to cry, scream, cheer, and laugh. In an interview destined to go viral, Malala Yousafzai left host Jon Stewart speechless with her beyond-her-years wisdom and eloquence. In the past few weeks, Malala’s name – and her cause – have been inescapable, especially after she became the youngest person ever on the short list for a Nobel Peace Prize. She has met the Queen of England, taken tea with Angelina Jolie, had a biography published about her life (at 16, no less), and put a face on the struggle to educate girls, especially in the developing world.

It is striking that at only 16, Malala has achieved global celebrity not even Hollywood starlets could dream of, and all without a stint in rehab. In a documentary about the Taliban in Swat Valley, the viewer is offered a glimpse of Malala just a few years ago: markedly shier, she hides her face behind her hands as she cries on camera. The reason for her tears: the next day, a Taliban ban on girls in school will take effect, and her schooldays would come to a (brief) end. Her father smiles and pats her back, telling the cameraman that he simply could not risk his daughter’s life because he “fell in love with her” the moment she was born. Four years later, Malala says of the moment, “We don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands… Education is power for women, and that is why the terrorists are scared of education.”

Malala is the perfect precocious, intelligent, mature teenager to serve as the poster girl for female education, and the movement has been receiving newfound and much-needed attention of late. Female education is one of those issues that seems like no-brainer to me: not only does it empower females, but it spurs the economy, leads to improvements in family and child health, decreases birthrates in already overpopulated countries, and all-around makes society better. Yet it is also one of the most contentious, with Islamist extremists in Malala’s Swat Valley claiming it is against Islam and blowing up more than 400 schools in the last half decade. In Pakistan, only 45 percent of women are literate compared to 69 percent of men. In neighboring Afghanistan, these numbers drop to 12.6 percent for women and 43.1 percent for men. Worldwide, 79.7 percent of women are literate while 88.6 percent of men are. Although both genders could clearly benefit from greater access to education, the discrepancies in their literacy rates points to the obvious greater disadvantages faced by women.

Female literacy rates and access to education also points to the larger “War on Women” that is taking place outside the US sphere of domestic politics (although that certainly exists as well) and is leading to not only asymmetric opportunities, but also the deadly phenomenon of Gendercide. The fact that females are viewed as not worth of education harkens to a larger issue: in many places, female infants are not even viewed as worthy of life. As a friend of mine recently pointed out on the international Day of the Girl, more than 200 million women are missing in Asia alone. The affordability and proliferation of sex determination tests for pregnant women has only served to speed up this trend. This Gendercide has killed more human beings than all of the wars of the twentieth century combined. If you take on single decade from 1900 onwards, then the amount of girls killed in those ten years surpasses all of the people killed in all of the recognized genocides of the 20th century combined.

The worth of a girl’s life in places where the issue is most acute amounts to less than nothing. In a haunting scene from the documentary It’s a Girl (the three deadliest words in the world), a woman recounts how she has murdered eight of her own female infants as soon as they were born, for the simple crime of being a girl. The most disturbing part is her facial expression as she admits this: she does not cry, or get upset, but actually smiles and laughs as she recounts her daughters’ deaths at her hands. You can only hope that it is a defense mechanism.

In places like China and northern India today, the birthrate is 120 boys for every 100 girls. Anyone who’s made it through a basic lesson in probability can see that this number is extremely skewed by human intervention. While there are many steps that policymakers can take to ensure that baby girls are not aborted or murdered after birth, one of the most concrete is improved access to female education. In many cultures, the decision to practice gendercide is an economic one: females are a financial burden unlikely to ever contribute back to their families. Yet if these same females were offered the same educational opportunities as their brothers, and if they are able to turn this education into careers or at least income-augmenting activities, then part of the cultural stigma of having a girl is lifted.

Part of the reason Malala Yousafzai is so bewitching is her dedication. Not many 16-year-olds would survive being shot in the head and think, “Now I’m going to go continue doing what got me shot in the first place, but on a global scale.” Another reason is her sense of pacifism, perfectly expressed on The Daily Show when she says she wants education even for the children of the Taliban who seek to kill her. Her own father offers an example of a man who not only educates his daughter, but seems to cherish her just as much as his male children. Women cannot win this fight without the support of men like Mr. Yousafzai, much like gay rights will never be achieved without a cadre of straight allies. In the words of Malala, “You must fight others, but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.” Here’s to hoping that in our lifetimes, this is a fight we can win.

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