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SPOTLIGHT
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An unlikely hero stands up to the Taliban

Published on -10/17/2012, 10:22 AM

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By MARY SANCHEZ

Tribune Media Services

Malala. The name itself is lyrical.

It falls from the tongue with a soothing cadence, despite the grim circumstances under which the world met 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai.

She's the Pakistani child the Taliban ordered assassinated. Shot in the head as she was returning home from school, Malala is still alive but critically injured. As the headlines worldwide have reported, she was targeted for vocally demanding what should be available to all girls: an education.

Watching videos of this gentle girl speaking about her desire for education, it's hard to know how much her motivation to stand up to the Taliban came from within and how much was prompted by her equally outspoken father, who operates a school for girls. But this is clear: She is a child raising herself far beyond her years to meet horrible realities. Children tend to do that when cruel adults put them in horrendous situations.

And denying education is among the most longstanding injustices done to women -- one that also happens to undercut the economic well-being of entire countries. The Taliban are perhaps the world's most notorious oppressors of women. (They dominate not merely much of Afghanistan but also Malala's home region, the Swat Valley of Pakistan.) They are not, however, the only force of backwardness in the world that believes morality and honor require keeping half of society's members uneducated and subjugated. It's a global problem.

In that way, Malala is representative of an estimated 41 million girls in the world who are denied a primary education. Only 30 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school.

Education protects girls. It shields them from marrying too young, and from having children too young and without planning. It protects them from being forced by poverty into sex trafficking and other acts that are dangerous to their health.

This is as true in America as it is in Africa, India, Cambodia and the Swat Valley.

The worst oppression of women flourishes when many members of society -- fathers, brothers, even women themselves -- buy into traditional patriarchy. Religion, law, ingrained cultural norms -- and, of course, armed thugs -- all act to enforce it.

It's interesting to look at efforts to educate girls in light of another project aimed at the improvement of women: microlending. That is a form of rudimentary banking that makes small loans to poor people in developing countries as a way to help them start small businesses. The ability to buy a sewing machine or a cow may lift a family out of abject poverty to a more sustainable, hopeful condition.

The guiding wisdom of microlending is that women typically are the best recipients of these loans. According to some microlending experts, when non-governmental organizations provide new access to money to men, they tend to spend it first on unproductive uses, such as prostitutes and drinking. Women, however, will figure out a way to use the funds to better the conditions of their families and often the community at large. Sometimes they start schools or small businesses that then allow their daughters to seek education instead of being shunted to low-paid work right away or being sold off in an arranged marriage.

As such, microlending undercuts traditional patriarchy. Interestingly, it does so in ways men tend to welcome. According to microlending advocates, men then tend to value the benefits a new business or job brings to family life, the extra income. They change their behavior and often their attitudes as a result. This is how societies progress.

One little girl, as the Taliban has brutally shown, is relatively easy to silence. But a village full of young girls, with fathers and mothers and brothers and uncles all understanding the benefits of education for all -- and pressing for it as a right -- is a more powerful force.

Malala's initial dream was to become a doctor. But she dropped that goal, after being convinced that serving as a politician would be more helpful to her country. Now hanging on to life, she nearly became a political martyr.

She deserved to have been born into a more gender-equal world.

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. msanchez@kcstar.com

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