Commentary Human Rights

The Girl Effect: The Potential of Pakistani Human Rights Defender Malala Yousafazi and Others Like Her

Karen Smith Rotabi

Press reports of the attack on Malala Yousafazi are focused on religious extremism and the Taliban’s crushing hold on some regions in Pakistan. I want to focus not only on Malala but also on how educating  girls, one by one, can change the world.

The recent assassination attempt on Malala Yousafazi has been widely covered in the press as she struggles for life after emergency surgery. At the time of this writing, her condition has stabilized and she has been transported from her home of Pakistan to Britain for specialized medical care. Reportedly, she has even taken a few steps in the earliest steps of rehabilitation care.

Press reports of this attack are focused on religious extremism and the Taliban’s crushing hold on some regions in Pakistan. Other coverage is of Malala’s condition as she receives treatment while the world watches and waits for the news of recovery. I want to focus not only on Malala but also on how educating  girls, one by one, can change the world.

Malala’s father is an educator, the director of her school—the commitment to education is a clear value of the family. With this energy and enthusiasm, Malala became a spokesperson for the right of girl’s education in Pakistan. Coming to the attention of human rights organizations like UNICEF, Malala inevitably was celebrated not only for her opinion (a child’s right) but also her ability to communicate the issues in eloquent English. When the Taliban announced girls’ attendance in school was abolished in the area of Pakistan where Malala lived, her life and struggle was followed and documented by journalists. Undoubtedly, it was this documentary process and expression of opinion on videotape that, in part, exposed Malala to extreme violence. The Taliban determined Malala to be a threat and her death was ordered to silence the child.  

Bravely, Malala participated in a high-profile human rights delegation to her country, giving her own testimony to humanitarian observers. She also met with President Obama’s special envoy to the region. As a child working in these circles of politics and power, Malala declared that she eventually hoped to be a politician in her own country of Pakistan. She saw that route as the way to make a difference on a large scale, ultimately contributing to the social development of her community and country.  

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Her BBC “Diary of a Pakistani School Girl,” an anonymous blog penned by Malala, will inevitably receive more attention now than ever before. And Malala clearly has made major contributions to human rights discourse—particularly bringing attention to the girls and women of Pakistan. She wrote and spoke out about the right to education while recognizing that the Taliban could, at any time, kidnap and maim or kill her. However, with unbelievable courage she continued to speak out and fight for her right as a girl to be educated. 

Malala is brave, without question. Her determination was such that living without her human rights was a greater burden than risking her life to speak out and express her opinion. Her courage was such that she acted on her right to pursue an education, going to school in secrecy while hiding her books and studying in shadows.

Now, as Malala struggles to recover her health, the question is: what can we all do to promote the right for girls and women to freely pursue an education? Frankly, the question is far too simple and the answer is very complex. However, some say that the most important humanitarian and development initiative on a worldwide basis is educating women and girls. And that does require us to think and consider how we can promote female-friendly transnational educational policies and development initiatives. 

Sometimes called the “girl effect,” the idea is simple (see video above). Educate a girl and she not only grows personally, but can then share her knowledge and talents in a way that contribute to the quality of life of her family and community. This basic social development concept draws upon the idea that educated girls later become mothers who have healthier children. Many also engage in economic opportunities and take on leadership roles in their communities and greater society.  Unleashing a tidal wave of the “girl effect” is without a doubt a critically important component to confronting global poverty, injustice, and oppression. 

One critical answer to global inequality and improving quality of life lies in promoting human rights and eliminating the discrimination against vulnerable people—including roughly half the world’s population of girls and women who live in countries without fair and just educational opportunities! So, as we rally for Malala’s recovery let us not forget her courage and determination. To ultimately make a difference in Pakistan and elsewhere, the momentum of Malala’s human rights defense must be carried on. We each have a role in the tidal wave of the girl effect!

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