On the 9th of October, just two days ago, Malala Yousafzai, 14 years old, was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan. Even when she was as young as 11 years old, she was an outspoken critic of the Taliban, with brave, smart and articulate views expressed clearly in a diary she wrote for BBC Urdu. She advocated ideas of secularism, equality for women and girls, and most importantly, the girl child’s right to education, something that she personally lost while living in Pakistan’s Swat region, under Taliban control, where education for girls was banned outright. Though the shot to her head did not kill her, she remains in critical condition, and new reports say she is now ‘out of danger’.
Today is the first International Day of the Girl Child – as declared by the United Nations. The skeptic in me might have asked, ‘Do we still live in a world that requires such a day?’ But I was reminded – as we were all – that we do.
How could Malala Yousafzai be ‘out of danger’ though, when the Taliban have openly admitted to the shooting, and also promised, vowed, threatened that they will return to kill her? How could she be ‘out of danger’ when we live in a world where a child can be shot in cold blood, because they demand their right to go to school?
No – Malala is not out of danger, and neither are thousands of other girls around the world, living in situations of fear and oppression, in circumstances of violence, abuse and incest. In her article (link above) about Malala Yousafzai, Kamila Shamsie writes about the Taliban, ‘For political differences, seek political solutions. But what do you do in the face of an enemy with a pathological hatred of women?’ And the Taliban are not alone.
This years’ inaugural International Day of the Girl Child focuses on child marriage, still rampant in South Asia, perhaps particularly in India. Girl children are forcibly married to men much older than themselves at a very young age, sometimes not more than 11. They have their education – if they are attending school – cut short, and are instead forced to fulfill the requirements of a wife, including giving birth to her own children. Many of these girls will conceive before they are 18 years old. Child marriage effectively ends the girls’ childhood, poses serious health risks and ensures that she will not be educated nor ever independent.
Female infanticide and female foeticide are also diseases that we’ve still not managed to cure completely and continues largely uncontrolled, and is, again, seen as a problem associated especially with India. In India, as in other places, female infanticide has its roots in the ‘dowry’ issue. Many years ago, impoverished, rural families, unable to provide a dowry for their daughter at the time of her marriage, and in fear that therefore, they might not be able to ‘marry her off’, and would thus be stuck with another mouth to feed, would, in desperation, kill the girl child at birth. Though hardly justifiable, this was the context in which female infanticide first occurred Today, the act of female infanticide has undergone a hideous transformation, a mutation, and has emerged a thousand times more horrendous. Today, women are stigmatized in society for not giving birth to boy children and girl children are seen as a burden, unable to ‘carry on the family name’. Today, families across cultures and class-divides engage in killing female babies at birth or let them die from starvation and neglect, or, worst of all perhaps, seek sex-selective abortion services in villages and cities alike. In addition to the gross number of female infants that are killed at birth, many female foetuses are destroyed in illegal abortions every year. And while huge weight of the ‘dowry issue’ continues to burden families in rural areas, couples in urban India, belonging to an educated, elite part of society, are seemingly just as prone to committing female foeticide in posh medical clinics around the country, at a very high cost.
In addition to this, the education of girl children is still a serious problem in many countries – believe it or not. In Muslim countries governed by Sharia law, if education for girls is not prohibited outright, it is frowned upon. In societies in South Asia too, the idea that girls must be educated is still not one that many families are passionate about. Instead, girls are expected to fill the role of wife and mother – often before she herself can be considered a grown-up. Though many of us would find it difficult to imagine that the education-for-girls issue has not been successfully overcome in the last 50 years, it’s important to remember that in some places, the struggle is an on-going one.
Moreover, girls, just by virtue of being girls, face a gamut of gender-based violence, especially sexual harassment, rape and incest; girls are hugely affected by child labour, sexual slavery and human trafficking. It’s also true that girls and women are particularly vulnerable in times and places of war and conflict – not just vulnerable to sexual violence in these contexts (though this is an area in which girls and women suffer significantly), but in situations of conflict, girls and women are often left with no financial stability if their husband/father is killed or is away at war, and are left unprotected with no real livelihood.
But worst of all is that girls – like women – are vulnerable to discrimination based simply on the inherent belief that they are not important; they are not equal, they can be done away with.
Malala Yousfzai’s case, though one that is extreme, is an example. It is a fleeting glance, just a taste, of some of the powers that threaten to overthrow peace, justice and democracy in our world. And it shows that some of us are simply easier to attack – easier to hurt – than the rest of us. An unarmed 14-year old girl, for example, is easy to attack – easy to kill. And what would her death mean in a system that doesn’t think much of girls and women, anyway? Who would be there to stand up and make a fuss?
So, while we cannot altogether end the kind of violence that threatens us all – the kind of cruel, evil violence that almost took the life of that brave 14-year old girl – we can create a world that cares, a world that would not stand for something like that, a world that would not accept any kind of attack on a peaceful civilian, man, woman or child, in any way, a world that condemns these acts and stands up for everyone, especially our children – the most innocent and vulnerable of us.
All these acts that violate the rights of the girl child are violations of very basic human rights. Besides, the degradation of girls in society creates a serious dent in the efforts of any nation attempting to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. So, if not in the name of our duty as humans, let it be in the name of our duty as nations and governments that we make it our business to protect girl children everywhere from all the various kinds of violence she encounters.
And the first step to beginning to protect her – all of them – is to choose to believe that she is worth protecting, that she is worth every fight and every struggle we put up in her name – that she is an integral part of our world and we just couldn’t do without her.