One year ago this week, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. Malala was targeted because she advocated openly for the right of girls to go to school. Parade Magazine calls her “the bravest girl in the world,” and it’s true, her courage is to be admired. But if we see Malala as unusual, we ignore the most important part of what she wants us to know. Malala would be the first to say she is just one of many thousands of girls who risk their lives in pursuit of education.
Malala’s most potent message is that she is a girl speaking for herself. In doing so, she has ignited a global movement of girls who are standing up to speak for themselves. In Malala’s words, “We should not wait for someone else to come and raise our voice. We should do it by ourselves. We should believe in ourselves. Yes, we can do it. One day you will see that all the girls will be powerful; All the girls will be going to school. And it is possible only by our struggle; only when we raise our voice.”
What a difference a year makes. What a difference 18 of them make. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the international community recognized, for the first time, the important role of girls in transforming their communities.
Since then, multinational corporations like Nike and Intel have put their foundations’ resources into programs that support girls, acknowledging that everyone does better when young women do better. A growing number of world leaders – from Gordon Brown to Hillary Clinton to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – have championed policies based on research that shows educated girls lead to empowered women and empowered women lead to healthier, stabler, and more economically vibrant communities.
Today, as we recognize International Day of the Girl Child and as the 20th anniversary of the Beijing women’s conference approaches in 2015, we already know that there is much more to achieve. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by extreme poverty. They comprise 70 percent of the one billion people who live on less than $1.25 per day. There are still 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school, and a staggering 14 million girls under the age of 18 will be married this year. That’s an average of 38,000 child brides per day or 13 every 30 seconds.
The hopeful news is that, in Malala and the girls of her generation, we see a style of leadership that is well suited to addressing the challenges we face, including what former Secretary of State Clinton has called “the unfinished business of the 21st century: the full and equal participation of women.”
Certainly, girls need adults and institutions as advocates and allies, but girls are not powerless. Girls are not just victims. By definition, Malala is a survivor. Girls are not simply vessels for family honor. Malala shows us they are activists with whom we stand shoulder to shoulder.
Malala’s leadership is in her recognition that she has a voice and that she does not have to accept things as they have always been. Malala has, in fact, reminded the world what leadership really means. It is not about a title or an award or any one person; it is about standing for positive change; for progress that benefits everyone. It is sometimes about risking everything for fairness and equality. It is about envisioning a better future even for historic enemies, and it is about making peace where there has only been conflict. In her speech to the United Nations this past July, Malala explained that she did not have ill will for the men who attacked her; she hopes for education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban, too.
Malala has given us a glimpse of what the world could look like when the voices of girls are heard, when their lives are valued, and when their unique leadership is prized.
Vital Voices Global Partnership helped incubate the Malala Fund, the official organization led by Malala Yousafzai helping girls go to school and raise their voices for the right to education. http://www.malalafund.org
Cross-posted with Forbes.com.