Malala Yousafzai is tiny and only 16. But she is an eloquent, larger-than-life symbol of a struggle the world must join if inroads are to be made against poverty and ignorance.
Malala’s cause is the education of girls, and she’s sacrificed much for it. A year ago she was shot in the head and almost killed by a Taliban extremist as she and other girls rode a bus home from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The Taliban have sworn to continue trying to kill her and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, also an outspoken advocate for girls’ education.
Girls going to school is something we take for granted here. For Malala and many other girls who just want an education, it’s potentially a death sentence in places where extreme Islamic fundamentalism holds sway. In Pakistan, the Taliban have blown up hundreds of schools to prevent girls from being educated. Parents are intimidated, even physically threatened, into keeping their daughters home.
The fundamentalists’ campaign to keep girls uneducated goes hand in hand with other forms of discrimination and abuse against females, such as genital mutilation, denying them access to jobs, and forcing them to marry against their will, often pairing very young girls with much older men.
These practices have dire consequences, not just for the individual girls and women, but for their countries. Keeping half of the population ignorant is a huge impediment to making progress in a world economy that rewards education and innovation.
Think of the poorest countries in the world; it’s no coincidence that they are also the countries that keep women from achieving their potential. Contrast those countries with the United States, where girls are actually outpacing boys in school, going to college in greater numbers and earning more degrees.
Yes, many boys in the undeveloped world are uneducated, too. But it’s a particular problem for girls. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate children are female, and they grow up to be illiterate women, equipped to perform only lowly, poorly paid tasks – if they’re even allowed to work. In some places, they can only beg to support themselves and their children if their husband has died or abandoned them.
Malala is at the forefront of the movement to change that for the many girls who hunger for education. She may not have won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, but she certainly deserves all of the accolades that have come her way. This little girl who so terrifies the Taliban cowards is an inspiration to the world.