Malala Yousafzai is one of the world’s most visible teenage girls. Shot in Pakistan for daring to fight for every girl’s right to education, the 15 year old is now recovering in a Birmingham hospital. Her country’s interior minister says she is a “symbol of courage and determination” against “extremist ideology”.
Around the world, people are declaring I am Malala and backing a petition by the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, supporting Malala’s drive for education for all.
However, on a recent visit to Pakistan, I found many teenage girls in the opposite position - hidden from public view, almost invisible.
There is a protocol if I want to talk to women and girls in rural Pakistan. The men, and perhaps a few boys, will meet me first. I will ask some questions, they will decide if they are happy for me to continue on to meet the women. But, when I do get approval, I find a group of older women and young girls waiting for me.
In each village, the young women I really want to meet are absent. From the age of 12 until they are married, often by the time they are 15, sometimes at 18, the girls stay in their homes. ‘Too much work to do to meet you,’ say the older women. ‘They are busy in the house.’
I persist. Eventually, I may be granted access.
One of the girls I finally meet – Latifan - hides behind her bright blue scarf and says she thinks she is about 12. She has two sisters and one brother, she whispers. She is hugely embarrassed to be speaking even in front of other women and girls. No, she hasn’t been to school but she can read Qur’an. Her day consists of fetching water – there are only two handpumps for the whole village and often these are broken so she has to walk to the river about half a kilometre away – washing up, washing clothes, reading Qur’an, looking after her younger siblings and sewing and doing embroidery. She is not interested in playing games, she says, she has too much to do. Her father is often away fishing and her mother looks after their animals, sometimes taking them away from the house, so leaving more work for Latifan – and no time for school.
In the villages I visited on this latest trip to southern Sindh and central Punjab, I found there were no schools for girls – and precious few for boys as well. New figures from UNESCO show more than three million girls in Pakistan are missing from class – the second highest figure in the world. Girls say there are many reasons why they cannot go to school – including the distance they must travel and their father’s refusal to let them attend class. In Pakistan, the difference in literacy between urban and rural and women and men is also stark. If you are a boy living in a city, you have an 80 per cent chance of going to school. If you are a girl in a village, it drops to 34 per cent.
There are other problems for girls too. In one village, the authorities tell me there are 100 boys but only 77 girls. No-one seems to be able to give me an explanation. Perhaps this is because, unlike in other countries, in Pakistan, this seems to be the norm. It is one of the few countries in the world where men and boys outnumber women and boys. And I am told that this is not because girls are aborted or killed at birth, as they are in some other countries, but simply that the preference for sons means that girls are neglected and die before they reach puberty. In addition, rates of violence against women are extremely high. Statistics for the We Can campaign to tackle violence against women show that 80 per cent of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence, though no-one in these villages will talk about it.
Few of the girls I meet have ever visited the nearest town even when it is only a few kilometres away - except when they were forced to leave in 2010 by the floods. Their lives are not very different from their mothers’ and grandmothers’, they say. They have no electricity or television, though they occasionally listen to the radio – for news, they say, looking at their elders from under their eyelashes, which makes me think it is probably to listen to music. Some of their fathers have mobile phones, but they have never used them. ‘We get married early, at 15 or 16, says Zeinab ‘and then we are too busy for much else.’
Malala’s father has called his daughter’s newfound worldwide visibility a “turning point” for Pakistan. On November 10 The UN’s Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, will meet with Pakistan’s president to present his petition calling for girls’ education and an end to discrimination. The power of Malala’s story must be harnessed to tackle the fact that women and girls in many countries are still second-class citizens.. The message is simple: Everyone should have the right to decide their own future, no matter which sex, or where, they are born. And girls in Pakistan should be able to be visible without being shot.
Back the petition at www.plan-uk.org/malala