Do you remember what you were doing on Oct. 11, the United Nations’ first International Day of the Girl Child? Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, was fighting for her life. She had been shot in the head and throat on Oct. 9 by a Taliban assassin intent on making the teenager an object lesson in fear. Ms. Yousafzai had dared to challenge the Taliban raging across Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Her offense was her determination to get an education. Her poignant diary, written for BBC Urdu’s Web site in winter 2008-9 about the daily struggles of a girl seeking a better life in a profoundly, even violently patriarchal society, had captivated the world and transformed her into a spokesperson for all girls barred from education and, regrettably, into a target in her homeland.
Gravely wounded, she has been transported to Britain for more sophisticated medical treatment and for her own safety. Taliban agents have vowed to complete their deadly mission. Ms. Yousafzai suffers today on behalf of all the girls in the developing world, millions who are shut out at birth from educational and career opportunities because of their gender; forced into child marriages, servitude or sexual slavery or murdered to preserve family “honor”; or prevented from being born in the first place as sex selection abortions depress the birth rate of girls in India, China and elsewhere.
This first observation of a day to acknowledge and celebrate the girl child focuses on the suffering engendered by child marriage. In the developing world, one in seven girls marries before age 15. The cultural institution of early and forced marriage essentially denies a girl her childhood. It disrupts her education, restricts her opportunities, increases her chances of becoming a victim of violence and abuse and jeopardizes her health.
The world wounds itself in its suppression of girls. Today there are 500 million adolescent girls in the developing world. If they could all express the fullness of their talent, their heart, their creativity and ambition—what would be the limit on their future accomplishments? How much could their vision and experience improve upon the plodding patriarchy in government and among international nongovernmental organizations dedicated to combating hunger, disease, poverty and social and economic inequity? But the spiritual loss of girls to the world is even more devastating when so many are denied the fullest expression of their humanity by “tradition,” by fear and ignorance, by malicious and ultimately self-lacerating misogyny.
The church condemns the grave moral evil of violence against women and the sexual exploitation of women, whether in their own homes or through the vicious trade of human trafficking and sexual bondage, an industry that particularly abuses young girls. Beyond these obvious offenses to human dignity, however, various other degradations of girls have a significant material impact on the future in terms of a profound void opened up in global productivity and creativity that is literally incalculable. The church has repeatedly promoted the full and equal dignity of women, and by extension girls, in a world where many societies are hostile to that notion.
In his “Letter to Women” in 1995, Pope John Paul II, after apologizing for the role Christians have played in undermining the dignity of women through the ages, highlighted the urgent need to achieve “real equality” for the world’s women as a matter of justice “but also of necessity.”
“Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future,” he wrote, “leisure time, the quality of life, migration, social services, euthanasia, drugs, health care, the ecology, etc.” What the church has called the “genius of women” will favor “processes of humanization which mark the ‘civilization of love.’” But before that genius can be realized, the world’s girl children must be protected and cherished.
The depravity of Ms. Yousafzai’s attackers has generated outrage throughout Pakistan. It is possible that, as one government minister suggests, her shooting could prove a turning point as pressure mounts to finally contain the Taliban. It is tempting now to succumb to platitude and sagely note that such an outcome would mean Ms. Yousafzai’s suffering would not have been in vain. But that is inaccurate—the suffering will surely continue for girls in Pakistan and around the world for many years after this first declaration of an international day for girls. And it is unfair to Ms. Yousafzai. She should never have been asked to pay so dear a price simply because she was born with a hunger for knowledge and a hope to do more with her life, as well as with the inescapable, wonderful and, in her case, daunting reality of her gender.