Friday, October 10, 2014

It’s a Good Day to be a Girl

I don't even have to write an article, I could just give you Malala quotes.
Today, the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced its youngest winner ever, Pakistani education advocate and world-famous terrorism survivor Malala Yousafzai. Her co-recipient Kailash Satyarthi,is an equally impressive child labor activist, who goes beyond rhetoric to leading actual raids of factories employing children, even standing down armed guards. Together, they are excellent representatives of the people who actively fight every day against fundamentalism, extremism, and violence.

Ms. Yousafzai’s activism on behalf of women and girls’ education everywhere has earned her nearly universal praise from the West, including this latest honor, yet she still cannot return home to Pakistan due to fears for her and her family’s life. While she is widely known and celebrated abroad, feted by heads of state, and has even met Queen Elizabeth II, Malala is often called a Western pawn or CIA agent in the Pakistani media, with some even doubting the veracity of the Taliban’s attempt on her life in 2012.

Nevertheless, Ms. Yousafzai remains determined to finish her education in England and return home one day to ensure that every girl child enjoys equality of education and of opportunity. In the meantime, she continues her activism by giving speeches at the United Nations, taking up the issue of girls’ education in countries around the world, and even telling the President of the United States that his drone policies are creating more terrorists than they are killing. Not too shabby for a seventeen-year-old. 

The Nobel Committee’s decision to award her and Mr. Satyarthi the Peace Prize this year also comes at an auspicious time: tomorrow, October 11, is the Day of the Girl Child. The UN established the Day of the Girl Child in 2012 to call attention to the particularly acute problems of gender inequality suffered by many female children across the globe: unequal access to healthcare, education, employment opportunities, and security, to name a few.

Girl children even suffer unequal opportunities to be born: in Asia alone, an estimated 200 million girl children were either aborted due to their gender, or left to die by their families for the crime of being born a female. I have previously written about the documentary It’s a Girl, which makes the accurate proclamation that the words “it’s a girl” at a child’s birth make up the deadliest phrase in the human language. In my own words, “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.”

Yet in world history, there has been perhaps no better time to be born a girl. Female literacy worldwide is at an all-time high of about 79 percent, about 9 percent behind males, but still commendable progress from the 69 percent female literacy rate in 1990. Women’s financial and political rights and opportunities have also expanded greatly since the 1990s, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women has been ratified by 188 states (although, notably, not the United States). The International Day of the Girl Child should serve as a testament not only to how far we’ve come as an international community, but also as a reminder of how much work there is left to do. In Ms. Yousafzai’s native Pakistan, education spending for both girls and boys is stagnant at about 1 percent of GDP, and while literacy overall and for females has climbed over the decades, the gap between males and females has actually widened. As we celebrate our progress, we must also focus on the work left to be done both in the developed and developing world, until girl children live in a world where an International Day of the Girl is unnecessary.

Hopefully, Ms. Yousafzai’s detractors in Pakistan will also become but a memory so that she can achieve her stated goal of returning to her homeland and working towards equal, quality education for all Pakistani children. In the meantime, the least those of us lucky enough to have had equal access to education can do is to recognize not only Malala’s courage and activism, but the daily activism of millions of girl children who make the brave choice every day to simply go to school in the face of extremists who would rather kill them than let them learn.

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