Developing strategies to end hunger

On the Inaugural International Day of the Girl, a Teenage Activist Fights for Her Life

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Educated girls like Catherine, 14, are the future of postwar Liberia. (Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl)

By Michele Learner

Discussions of strategies to end hunger generally emphasize women's critical roles as crop producers, food handlers, and family cooks. But before a woman can contribute to reducing hunger in her family, community, or country, she needs an education and the skills and confidence to advocate for herself and her children.

The first observance of the new U.N. International Day of the Girl is today, 10/11/12 -- a date that draws attention to the fact that girls' education and personal liberties often begin to come under threat at ages 10, 11, and 12.  

Depending on where they live, girls' top educational priorities run the gamut from improving access to math and science careers to ensuring that girls start primary school.

School Girls Unite, an organization that includes young activists in the United States and Mali, played a critical role in the establishment of the International Day of the Girl. Middle school girls led a successful campaign to mobilize U.S. government support -- including seeking endorsements and meeting with officials at the White House and the State Department. The United Nations officially established the International Day last December.

School Girls Unite has prepared 10 action-oriented reports on gender injustices in education, including the dropout crisis among girls, child marriage, and gender-based violence. The reports are available on the organization's Day of the Girl website.

In the midst of writing this blog, I heard about a shooting near Peshawar, Pakistan. The victim, who was specifically targeted by gunmen who boarded her school bus, is Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani activist for girls' rights, particularly the right to education. At last report, Malala had survived surgery but was still unconscious and in critical condition.

Malala is a brave, determined person and a gifted leader whose activism started with standing up for her own education and those of her friends -- as a fifth-grader. Only 11 years old and an aspiring doctor, she stepped forward and protested the closure of her school by Taliban militants opposed to girls' education.

"As turbaned fighters swept through her town in northwestern Pakistan in 2009, the tiny schoolgirl [Malala Yousufzai] spoke out about her passion for education," reported The New York Times. Malala has continued to speak out for girls' rights ever since; in 2011, she was a finalist for the International Children's Peace Prize. 

Adam B. Ellick, who produced "Class Dismissed," a 2009 documentary about Malala's activism amidst the insecurity and violence of her home region, the Swat Valley, wrote in his blog yesterday, "... don’t be fooled by her gentle demeanor and soft voice. Malala is also fantastically stubborn and feisty — traits that I hope will enable her recovery."

Let's join Ellick in hoping that well before the next International Day of the Girl, Malala is again speaking out and attending secondary school. And on this inaugural International Day of the Girl, let's renew our commitment to bringing change to the lives of the estimated 35 million girls of primary school age who do not attend school. Their futures -- and their children's futures, and in many ways their countries' futures -- depend on getting into a classroom.

Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.


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