Malala Yusufzai was just 14 years old when in 2012 the Pakistan Taliban targeted her school bus and shot her point-blank due to her efforts to spread awareness of what girls faced in her home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The region, controlled by an offshoot of the Taliban, has implemented a strict version of Sharia law, which includes public floggings and banning girls from going to school. Malala, a young but brave female activist, dared raise her voice and call for equal access to education to all children in her blog posts for the BBC since 2009. Her bravery was however met with a shotgun which later sent her to Birmingham in the UK for life-saving treatment. The girl survived, however, and now, three years after her assassination attempt she is the youngest Novel Peace Prize winner. She also finally received justice last month, albeit incomplete and questionable, after 10 individuals involved in the bus shooting were sentenced to death in Pakistan. So what does that mean for her, for her country and for girls in Pakistan and beyond?
The trial of Malala’s attackers was little-publicised, one may even say it was secret. Local journalists in Pakistan claim they did not even know it was taking place, and it wasn’t until documents were leaked to the media that the world found out the men had received their sentences in April 2015. What actually happened behind the anti-terror court doors remains a mystery. Why would the authorities want secrecy when the intuition would say, go on and show the world you’re finally bringing those men to justice, your police and courts are improving their work and status, and necessary reforms and human rights concerns are finally being addressed. Some speculation exists as to whether the men sentenced last month really were who authorities say they were; others believe a military source who said that only two of the 10 men had actually been sentenced; even worse – Ataullah Khan, implicated as the man responsible for personally shooting Malala, was not among the 10 men sentenced, and Mullah Fazlullah, the Taliban leader who allegedly ordered the assassination, had reportedly fled to Afghanistan prior to the trail. So who was sentenced and is justice complete? Possibly not. But any justice is still a step in the right direction, and at least one conviction is one bit closer to equality for girls and boys, respect for education and human rights progress and development.
Malala herself is in the UK, which is where she attends school since her release from the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. She has now met influential figures such as Queen Elizabeth II and Barack Obama, and made history last year with her Nobel Peace Prize win. Like any historical event, this time too, the October announcement of the Norwegian Nobel Committee caused a wave of impressive critical pieces being published online and in paper. Some claimed fighting for girls’ education has nothing to do with peace itself, only with chidlren’s rights. Even worse, the prize seemed as a political and religious statement that reflected the ongoing border dispute in Kashmir – Malala received the honour together with Indian Kailash Satyarthi (fighting to end child slavery), i.e. it was aimed to calm the simmering conflict in the region that has lasted for generations. That anyone would voice criticism that Malala hasn’t done enough peace work is very disappointing. Peace does not only mean conflict resolution between two states, it also refers to a peaceful society that promotes harmony between genders and their equal access to education and other human rights. This young girl is working for the future generation of women, and what better way to build a more sustainably peaceful and safe world than to teach children about their rights and freedoms from a young age. This sentence now brings at least some respect for her efforts within her home country – something well recognized by the international community by now. Malala’s memoirs, which have been published since, are yet another remarkable read recommended to anyone interested in justice, equality and development.
Some believe Malala is an “American agent” and she has been continuously aided by the West in her infiltration efforts in Pakistan. Regardless of these claims, the very minimum this girl has done is raise awareness on the plight of girls and women in her home state and beyond. In the year she was shot, the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the least gender equitable in the Asia and Pacific region. UNESCO further assesses, “The poorest girls in Pakistan are twice as likely to be out of school as the poorest girls in India and around six times as likely as the poorest girls in Bangladesh”. Once educated, if they are lucky enough that is, Pakistani women face further challenges such as access to capital and entrepreneurial initiatives for example because they need permission from a male to even qualify for a loan (in nearly 70% of all cases). If they are to enter the workforce, studies show literate Pakistani women earn twice as much as those who were illiterate, clearly demonstrating the benefits of education. And let us not forget that an estimated 90% of women in the country face physical and mental abuse, Pakistan is also notorious for acid attacks against women, and it happens to be the one state in the world with highest honour-based attacks against women (over 1000 a year). With such statistics in mind, could one ever question Malala for her efforts to advance equality and girls’ education and participation? I do not think so.
The recent sentencing of Malala’s attackers may have come as a surprise and may be rather suspicious in its handling and the lack of public information. Regardless, some justice has been served. Meanwhile, well done to the United Nations for recently passing its very first resolution condemning gender-based violence in and around schools worldwide, what a great success that is. Now time for Malala’s power to shine through Pakistan as well, not just in the West, and for an actual change to occur in her home state. Well done, miss!