THE BLOG

An Awakening

Oct 17, 2012 | Updated Dec 17, 2012

On the eve of Oct. 11, 2012, the first United Nations International Day of the Girl Child, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed a group of Girl Scouts commemorating the organization's 100th anniversary.

The celebration had been planned far in advance -- but in light of recent events, Secretary Clinton initiated her speech dedicating the day to women fighting oppression all over the world, and one in particular: Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan.

On Jan. 3 2009, 11 year-old Malala Yousafzai's blog read: "On my way from school to home I heard a man saying 'I will kill you'. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone."

At the time, the Taliban were taking over her Swat district in Pakistan and implementing a ban on girl's education -- that was when a fearless Malala took to blogging about her struggles, with her accounts published on BBC Urdu. In the months leading up to the post, over 150 schools had been destroyed.

Nearly four years later, they did come for her. Last Tuesday, two Taliban gunmen stopped the bus she was traveling in and shot Malala in the head as she made her way to school. The brutal attack on a now 14-year-old Malala -- celebrated around the world for her activism for girls' education -- rang loud and sharp across the world at a time when we are collectively waking up from our slumber of conformity and the excuse of cultural sensitivity.

Later in Secretary Clinton's speech, she went on to announce the launch of a series of initiatives particularly targeting the issue of child brides, declaring:

"And I think we should be dedicating our efforts to brave young women, some of whose names we will know and some we will never know, who struggle against tradition and culture and even outright hostility and sometimes violence to pursue their hopes, their God-given potential to have a life of meaning and purpose and make contributions to their families, their communities, their countries, and the world."

In countries from Mali to India to Bangladesh and across the globe 10 million girls younger than 18 become child brides, Clinton explained. She detailed a number of joint efforts by NGOs and various governments to aid in the Girls Not Brides initiative, a global partnership created by The Elders with the goal of ending child marriage by the year 2030.

In their mission, Girls not Brides states that at least six of the eight UN's Millennium Development Goals are hindered by child marriage -- including ending poverty and hunger; achieving universal education; gender equality; child and maternal health and fighting HIV/AIDS.

Spearheading the initiative as a member of The Elders, Nobel Peace Price winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu joined Secretary Clinton in the address and described education as the only antidote against child marriage. "It is a great deal better letting those kids finish school -- a child 15 years old going to have a child -- the chances are she is going to die in childbirth. How can we want them to be what god had not intended them to be?" he said.

The conversation on the rights of girls had been brought forth recently by a number of distinguished initiatives, including the launch of 10x10: Connect the Dots, Educate Girls, Change the World, a revolutionary film and global social campaign unveiled in September at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting.

Just two weeks ago, PBS aired Half the Sky, the groundbreaking four-hour documentary based on the 2009 book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, featuring a select group of Hollywood A-listers who travel the world meeting women and sharing their stories in order to raise awareness on the oppression of women around the globe. Likewise, CNN has chosen Girl Rising, a documentary promoting girls' education, as the first to air under the network's new film division.

Would the world still react the same way to Malala's story if it were not placed in the context of what appears to be a global awakening and movement toward prioritizing women's rights? Or have technology and globalization enabled stories like Malala's to come to the fore and humanize larger issues, sparking greater interest in a collective effort to change a world where a teenage girl gets shot for simply wanting to go to school?

Outrage at Malala's story is gaining momentum -- a week after it made international headlines, Buzzfeed posted Monday a moving compilation of photos of women around the world publicly demonstrating their support for and solidarity with Malala's struggle.

For those of us who woke up after Malala's attack, impatient to jump in the fight but may feel we are a world away, Wendy Lesko, executive director of the Youth Activism Project, says that's precisely why there needed to be an International Day of the Girl. Lesko heads a national Day of The Girl initiative that calls on girls across America to go beyond support, "that means going to our elected officials and demanding change."

Following her lead, groups of girls and women across the nation assembled to hold Day of The Girl events and speak up against sex trafficking, child marriage, access to education, and all other issues that deprive the world of the full potential of women.

Malala's fight is not hers or her family's, it's not the fight of a small group of defiant moderates 10 time zones away. Malala's fight -- now literally between life and death -- should serve as a wake-up for all of us to turn our focus into eradicating an ill that affects development, economy, human rights and even global mortality: gender inequality. "The Day of the Girl" should not exist in a vacuum -- it is one step in a journey of many, a way of looking at the world that we can endeavor to uphold not just once a year, but every single day going forward.