In a year full of infamous villains, real life heroes and “where were you when…” moments no single individual has left such an impression on me as much as Malala Yousufzai. Not as famous as a Kardashian, nor a Nobel Prize winner (like the European Union), Malala has shown more bravery than any footballer, more dedication than an idol winner and more conviction than our current political leaders.
Malala has been campaigning for girls’ rights to education in a conservative area of Pakistan for years. At only 11 years old, she began writing anonymously for the BBC, denouncing the Taliban for their heinous crimes in her native Swat Valley where they had once imposed strict Shari’a law.
Before the Pakistani security forces began to drive them out of the region a few years ago, the Taliban’s brutal occupation of Swat saw the destruction of hundreds of girls schools, which were already incredibly rare.
With 163,000 primary schools across the country, less than 1/4 of them allow female students.
Out of a total 5000 out of 14,000 lower secondary schools and 3000 out of 10,000 higher secondary schools are reserved for girls.
These numbers are even lower in rural areas, such as Swat. The female literacy rates in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan (areas with heavy militant activity) are reported to be just 3% and 8%.
According to Pakistan’s Federal Education Ministry the national literacy rate is only 46%. By way of contrast neighboring India achieves a commendable 74%.
For Pakistani females, it’s just 26%. That means 3 out of 4 Pakistani women cannot read or write. At all.
Malala is one of the lucky ones, as she is highly educated and fortunate to enjoy opportunities undreamt of by most Pakistani girls her own age.
With the surprising encouragement of her father, a devout Muslim, Malala began to write under her own name about her desire to go to school without fear. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is himself an education activist who has also been targeted by militants and risked local opprobrium to give his daughter the same education and opportunities only available to a son.
An inspiring advocate for women’s education in Pakistan, Malala became the subject of a documentary, revealing her innocent face for all the world to see – a symbol of women around the world seeking empowerment.
Malala has drawn attention to her nation’s abject poverty, which forces millions of Pakistani children to go to work to help support their families.
According to UNICEF, 17.6% of Pakistani children (of both genders) work, particularly as domestic servants and do not attend school at all.
She is extraordinarily courageous in the face of Taliban militants, never wavering from her message, risking her life to defend girls’ rights to receive an education.
Just how real those risks are became apparent when on Oct. 9 2012, a school day like any other, Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus, sought her out and shot her in the head for “promoting secularism”.
By some miracle she survived the attack and was airlifted to a Birmingham hospital where she continues to recuperate. She suffered no major neurological damage, but faces a long recovery from her injuries.
Malala, now 15, has become tenacity personified, recognized not only in her native Pakistan, where the culture wars over women’s rights and religious freedom continue to rage, but all around the world.
Malala has been bestowed with numerous accolades from around the world (both before and after the shooting) and since been awarded Teenager of the Year by The Times and nominated for 2013’s Nobel Peace Prize (2012 was awarded to European Bankers and Bureaucrats).
Malala Yousufzai expressed gratitude to all the people around the world who have supported her as she recovers from the traumatic attack.
In a message read by Anderson Cooper at the CNN Heroes ceremony in Los Angeles, Malala said “Thank you so much for the outpouring of love and support… I thank the people that supported me without distinguishing religion and color.”
Malala is a true heroine. Because of her (and other fearless campaigners like her), Pakistani girls have a brighter future and better prospects than ever before. But her cause is still very much a work in progress. It is very important to understand the significant challenges Pakistan faces, and perhaps to give the Pakistani government more credit than it often gets. I for one didn’t realise the obstacles Pakistan faces (or the efforts they are making to tackle them) until speaking with the High Commissioner to Australia, His Excellency Abdul Abdullah.
Prior to the war in Afghanistan (the one the Russians started in Dec 1979) there were 2000 Madrassas (a fundamentalist Islamic school) in the country.
After America began its covert campaign (check out Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War to learn more) against the USSR in Afghanistan, this number grew to over 18 000 with the aim of churning out jihadi fighters. Whilst this proved very effective in winning the war, it left a lot of poorly educated, highly indoctrinated young men with few life skills other than fighting.
After the Russians left, over a quarter of a million of these radical holy-warriors and 4 million refugees were stranded (where they remain in limbo) in the very region Malala lived in. As if this concentration of fear and hatred wasn’t dangerous enough, the drugs sold to finance the Mujaheddin have found their way into the veins of Pakistani youth.
The number of drug addicts burgeoned from 200 000 in 1980 to over 5 million today. Religion was also used as a weapon in the conflict, with Gulf states and Iran provoking once rare friction between Shia & Sunni muslims for their own strategic ends. Amongst the poor and disenfranchised drugs, guns, and poverty are lethal when combined with religion and politics.
Whilst the Pakistani Security Forces’ relationship with the Taliban is, as their Facebook status might read “its complicated”, and receives legitimate scrutiny from the west bear in mind that over 6 000 members of those security forces have died in the last 10 years a the hands of Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist, along with 37 000 civilians due mainly to the Pakistani government’s support for the Global War of Terror.
The World Bank estimates the War on Terror has cost this already impoverished nation 78 Billion dollars (US).
So it’s not simply gender discrimination and religious persecution that Malala and the people of Pakistan face, it’s a web of socio-economic complexities further convoluted by politics, patriarchal hierarchies and religious fundamentalism.
Malala is my Person of the Year for 2012 as she has demonstrated that one person can make a difference.
Her bravery and dedication to championing the right’s of women, education for all and fortitude in the face of such invidious, morally-bankrupt and misogynistic insurgent thugs has influenced and inspired me far more this year than than any sports star, celebrity or politician, you no doubt have heard more about.