And a Child Shall Lead Them

A Pakistani woman, right, holds a poster of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, who was shot on Tuesday by the Taliban f
A Pakistani woman, right, holds a poster of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, who was shot on Tuesday by the Taliban for speaking out in support of education for women, during a candlelight vigil in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. A Pakistani military spokesman says Yousufzai is in "satisfactory" condition but cautions that the next few days will be critical. Writing on the poster at right reads, "the whole nation prays for the recovery of Malala."(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Some things just gnaw at you. They grab hold of your emotions, your consciousness, your humanity, and they won't let go.  The first time I felt that gnawing feeling was while watching television as a young boy with my father.  CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite was showing newsreel clips of young African-American school kids in Alabama being fire hosed and chased by dogs controlled by white racist police officers. Those images left an indelible impression on me.  I can still clearly see in my mind elementary school age kids being mauled by German Shepherds and pushed down the street by water from fire hoses, screaming and crying all the while. I remember my dad saying that there needed to be a "special punishment for people who mistreat children."  But in saying that, he was also saying to me that mean-spirited people did exist, and that I needed to be aware of that. I couldn't sleep all night because of the knot in my stomach.
Fortunately, I can honestly say that I have felt that gnawing only a few times. But it came back with a vengeance when I heard about Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a 14-year old Pakistani girl who, three years ago, defied the Taliban by declaring that she was going to go to school. Under the Taliban's extremist Muslim views, women are not allowed to be educated, have professional jobs or dress in a manner in which too much of their skin is visible. With bold and brash style, the then-11-year old Malala began championing education for Muslim women through a blog on the British Broadcasting Company. At one point she said, "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education. And I'm afraid of no one." Such brazen and insolent behavior from everyday citizens is unheard of in that part of the world. Especially from a little girl.  For the last three years, the Taliban has threatened to put Malala in her place.
Last week, a Taliban hit squad shot Malala while she was on the bus headed to school. Also shot in the shoulder and hand was Malala's best friend, Shazia Razman, who was sitting next to Malala on the school bus. Malala sustained gunshot wounds to the head and is now fighting for her life. 
During a recent interview following the shooting, Shazia spoke at length about how much of an inspiration Malala has been to her and other women living in the Taliban-influenced Middle East. Shazia also vowed that once Malala recovers they will go back to school and study together again. 
I have been thinking about Malala and the fate of millions of Muslim schoolgirls all week. And that knot in my stomach has returned. Why is it that all too often we allow children to do our freedom fighting for us?  From the civil rights marches of the '60s to the Chinese student uprising in Tiananmen Square in the late '80s to the more recent street protests in Egypt which led to President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, children protestors played the pivotal role in standing up to unjust government policies and practices that needed to be changed. And today, a 14-year-old girl, who is unconscious and now being treated in a British hospital, has become the international symbol and face for the girls education movement, which for years has been looking for a leader. 
I have long believed that society needed to do two things as it relates to our children: give each child equal access to a high quality education and generally treat all children better. Malala's case reminds me of a third duty society owes our kids:to make sure they don't have to lead freedom fights that the adults should be leading.