The Malalas You'll Never Meet

The attempted assassination in Pakistan of fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai by Taliban shooters is only the latest and most brazen attack on leaders brave enough to defy death threats and fight for a girl’s right to go to school.

Earlier this week gunmen boarded Malala’s school van, asked for her by name and shot her. The teenager now fights for her life in a hospital and receives visits from dignitaries who until her attempted assassination had not dared to challenge publicly the kind of extremism that views educated girls as an existential threat.

But there are many Malalas whose stories rarely are heard. Just as this courageous girl refused to silently abandon her right to education even at the risk of losing her life, women and men fight daily against a worldview that considers girls’ schools a call to action in their battle against modernity. Only Wednesday these fighters struck again in Afghanistan, bombing a girls’ high school in the largely peaceful Bamyan province. And their stories serve as a reminder of the stakes involved in the fight against extremism and for modernity. 

Khan Mohammad is one of these unheralded citizens battling the extremism that seeks to overtake his country. The head of the Porak girls’ school in Logar province, a mere hour from Afghanistan’s capital, Khan Mohammad ignored a series of Taliban warnings to stop teaching his students. In May 2011 Taliban shooters ended his fight to educate half the country with a series of bullets. He died near his home. Few headlines attended his murder, but he is and was not alone in his quest to keep girls in school.

For years I have interviewed young women as courageous and committed as Malala and Khan Mohammad who refuse to submit to threats to abandon their education and their future dreams. One young midwife told me that she decided to pursue her profession to save women’s lives after her father rushed her out of Kandahar during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s. It seems a Taliban fighter wanted to marry her – an offer her father could never have refused – so he invented a family wedding in Pakistan and whisked all of his daughters back to Kabul where they lived until the Taliban fell in 2001. As soon as schools reopened in 2002 her father insisted she return to her studies. In 2004 she joined the first class of midwifery training.

This year the fight to keep girls in school has grown even tougher as the Taliban turns classrooms into battlefronts to a greater extent than ever before. The United Nations mission in Afghanistan says it verified 34 attacks against schools in just the first six months of this year, “including cases of burnings of school buildings, targeted killings and intimidation of teachers and school officials, armed attacks against and occupation of schools, and closures, particularly of girls’ schools.” Note the targeted killing of teachers and educators such as Khan Mohammad. And let us ask ourselves why, exactly, their fight matters?

Often I am asked whether we are “imposing America’s views” when it comes to promoting girls’ education in a country like Afghanistan? My answer is that those pushing this struggle forward are not foreign. They are people like Khan Mohammad, the teachers assassinated simply for going to work and the young midwife whose father pushed her to get an education and pursue her dreams of a career. All that the world can do is to support these homegrown education fighters.

Investing in girls’ education provides among the highest returns around when it comes to goals ranging from greater food security to more robust economic growth. According to a 2004 report from Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling, every additional year of primary education offers women a 10 to 20 percent increase in earnings, and each additional year of secondary education can increase future wages by 15 to 25 percent. As the World Bank notes, increasing the number of women who complete secondary education by merely 1 percent boosts annual per capita income growth by .3 percent. And in a desperately poor country like Afghanistan where per capita GDP hovers around $500, every bit of growth is needed.

But beyond the economic benefits, girls’ education fosters stability. Nobel Prize winner Amarty Sen argues that “perhaps there is no clearer route to economic development, political stability, and ultimately peace, than education.” Today close to 40 million of the 70 million children who are out of school come from countries struggling against armed conflict. And as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said, “a better-educated world is a safer world because low educational attainment is one of the few statistically significant predictors of violence.”

And yet violence is what continues to greet those who say simply that going to school and educating girls is not a crime, but a right. Each day they venture out, unknown and unarmed, facing an adversary that sees homegrown leaders like Khan Mohammad as threats to be vanquished. But assassinating Khan Mohammad and shooting Malala Yousafzai will not extinguish girls’ desire to create their own, brighter future for themselves, their families and their communities, no matter where they are in the world.

Their push against forces that would take their countries backward in time and for the education that makes stability and prosperity possibility is a high-stakes battle. And everyone who desires a more peaceful world has a stake in the outcome.

Originally published on CNN.com.

GAYLE LEMMON 

Gayle is the New York Times best-selling author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana and the deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program. A former Fulbright scholar and Robert Bosch Foundation fellow, she serves on the board of the International Center for Research on Women.