On this day, October 11, when the UN and the world observe the first International Day of the Girl, we have a chilling reminder of just how far we have to go before girls achieve true gender equality. Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to advocate for the education of girls, is fighting for her life in a Peshawar military hospital. While hopes are high that she will survive, she remains in critical condition.
Leaders from around the world today will talk about the vital importance of girls' right to education, but all the words in the world will not speak louder than the grim tragedy that has befallen Malala. In Pakistan, as in many other developing countries, girls lack far behind boys in educational attainment. Child marriage is still prevalent in many rural areas of Pakistan, including the Swat Valley, where Malala was shot. Even in these modern times, tradition and culture conspire to deprive young girls of their adolescence, their freedom, their schooling and their hopes for a better life. In some areas of the world, including some portions of Pakistan, girls are transferred to another family in the settlement of debt.
But when it comes to gender equity or child marriage, Pakistan is far from the worst offender. Across the border in Afghanistan girls who have been raped are often forced to marry the perpetrator or, worse, they have been imprisoned for the "crime" of adultery.
Four years ago, the world rallied around Nujood Ali, a young Yemeni girl who was married off at the age of 10 to a man in his thirties. Beaten by her in-laws and raped by her husband, she walked into a local court and asked the judge to grant her a divorce on the grounds that the law in Yemen forbade her husband from having intercourse with her until she was of "suitable" age. To the shock and relief of the world, Nujood Ali was granted the divorce. Today, she is an internationally recognized advocate for the education of girls.
In the four years that have passed since Nujood Ali's case seized the conscience of the world, a growing number of world leaders have joined the fight against child marriage. A few years ago a distinguished group of former world leaders formed a group called the Elders, and subsequently joined up in support of a larger global campaign called "Girls not Brides."
The momentum generated by that campaign has raised hopes that the practice of child marriage can be abolished, but despite broad acknowledgement that child marriage is a violation of human rights, the world has a long ways to go in ending the practice. Every year, an estimated 10 million girls worldwide are married before they turn 18, often with no say in the matter.
Child marriage is one of the principal reasons that fertility rates remain high in many of the least developed countries. It's also a major contributor to maternal and infant mortality. Physically, many girl brides are not mature enough to bear children, or the children they bear are born prematurely. And by removing girls from school, child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty and gender oppression.
PBS just ran a television special based on Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the widely acclaimed book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. While the book and the documentary focus, understandably, on the injustice of gender inequality, they also highlight the enormous benefits, social and economic, that would flow from educating girls and giving them full equality.
As tragic as the shooting of Malala Yousufzai was, we must turn our collective outrage into constructive action. On this day, the first International Day of the Girl, let us all resolve to turn her personal tragedy into a global rallying cry for girls, their education, and their right to pursue their own hopes and dreams, free from the tyranny of gender inequality.
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