"Let It Be a Lesson": The Yearning for Learning, as a Force of Nature

Malala Yousafzai's tragedy is our tragedy; may she live, and may this astonishingly beautiful young woman continue to inspire us. But her story teaches us that the hunger for learning is unstoppable.
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"Let it be a lesson," pronounced the Taliban spokesman, confirming the midday shooting by colleagues in Pakistan's Swat Valley of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, explicitly because of her passion for education and her courageous campaign for the right of girls to go to school.

Lessons, of course, are all that Malala sought: the chance to learn, to read and write, to become a doctor, in her case. Should she survive, added the Taliban spokesman, Mr. Ehsanullah Ehsan, according to the New York Times, "the militants would certainly try to kill her again."

What a month. October -- when the light, trees, wind and time change, in much of America, and regret at summer's passing is overtaken by excitement and anxiety about book reports, midterms, soccer matches, homecoming proms. The month ushered in, via public broadcasting, the ravaging four-hour documentary, Half the Sky, based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl Wu Dunn and emceed by Kristof, who leads us through scene after scene in country after country where the violent victimization of girls and women is leavened only by the unfathomably brave heroism of survivor after survivor.

October is also the month during which the United Nations elected to dedicate an entire day -- this year it's today, 10-11-12 -- to girls: to their health, education and equality, and to their success and fulfillment, as mothers, earners and leaders. And it is the month when, not 48 hours before this global celebration, a girl is shot in the head on a school bus by masked men because she lives to learn.

There are many Malalas in our world: girls who, whatever their situations, are eager to learn, excited or desperate to learn and sometimes, as with Malala, nearly dying to learn. In the severely under-resourced cities where we work across sub-Saharan Africa -- which, together with Pakistan, has the world's lowest female literacy rates and which is home to nearly half of the world's out-of-school girls -- countless young women are standing up today, on this International Day of the Girl, for their right to an education.

In Blantyre, Malawi's economic capital, schoolgirls are marching and singing for girls' education today, holding their handmade posters high. In Mekelle, the capital of northern Ethiopia's Tigrai region, girls are teaching other girls today to sew simple, recyclable sanitary pads, which have made the difference between their staying in school when they have their periods, and staying home -- or, as is still the practice in some parts of Tigrai, digging a hole in their yard and sitting on it for five days.

In Kumasi, Ghana, middle school girls in the LitClubs organized by our NY-based partner LitWorld are writing advocacy letters to public officials -- the first lady, their MP, their local assemblyman or -woman, the mayor -- about issues of deep concern to them, including teen pregnancy, homelessness among girls and the many girls they have to pass each morning who are too poor to attend school.

And behind the noisy demonstrators, debaters and letter-writers stand many quieter heroes: girls who walk miles to reach their school each day, village girls who've traded their childhoods just to be able to live in the cities where the high schools are, often risking their health servicing the men who keep them, or girls who work nights selling or shouldering market goods just to cover school costs or to pull their weight at home, who come home late and study by flickering kerosene lamp, willing to give up their sight, their health, their buoyant radiance for an education, a lifeline, a future.

It was demonstrated long ago that girls' and women's education can lead to the reduction in maternal mortality, infant mortality, fertility rates and infection with HIV and AIDS. A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past five, with each additional year of schooling beyond primary on the part of the mother yielding even greater benefits in improved opportunities, options and outcomes.

Girls know these things, almost intuitively. They will not be stopped by bullets: like boys, girls are essential, intrinsic to nature -- put on earth to grow, learn, thrive, nurture and lead. And rest assured, their mothers, who may not have had such opportunities back when they were girls, will back them up in this. Many fathers, too, like Malala's own, are on board, with many more fathers now coming around, once they realize their daughters can bring them not only a dowry and offspring, but also income, standing and pride.

Malala Yousafzai's tragedy is our tragedy; may she live, and may this astonishingly beautiful young woman continue to inspire us. But her story teaches us that the hunger for learning is unstoppable. Indeed, an education -- reading, writing, thinking, learning new things, puzzling out interpretations and contradictions among texts -- is what a rich and rewarding life is about. The desire for an education bespeaks an openness to the world. Contrary to Mr. Ehsan's reported remarks, Malala's passion for learning, like that of millions of girls worldwide, is an affirmation of life, of growth, of time, of hope in mankind's -- and womankind's -- ability to progress. It is a holy, serious, joyful undertaking; it should not have to be a deadly one.

On this day, the International Day of the Girl, "let it be a lesson."

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