Yesterday was the first Taiwan Girls Day and the second UN’s International Day of the Girl Child. The UN General Assembly agreed on Dec. 19, 2011, to mark Oct. 11 as a day to recognize girls’ rights and the challenges faced by girls globally. The Garden of Hope Foundation last year pushed Taiwan to follow suit.
The focus of this year’s International Girls’ Day was education, a cause that has been promoted by one of the most famous young girls in the world, one who survived being shot in the head just over a year ago by Pakistani Taliban because her outspokenness on the need for education.
Malala Yousafzai may not have won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, but the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on Thursday. The parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, said she “bravely stands for the right of all children to be granted a fair education. This right for girls is far too commonly neglected.”
The 16-year-old first gained fame in 2009 when she was just 11, by writing a blog for the BBC’s Urdu service about life in Pakistan’s Swat valley two years after Taliban militants took over the area. Even before she was shot last year, she had become a symbol of the struggle to educate girls. She has said she was inspired by her mother’s illiteracy as well as her father’s determination to see her educated.
A spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on Thursday said Malala had done nothing to deserve the award and again threatened her with death. Shahidullah Shahid also condemned her for wanting a life different from that of her mother, noting that Malala has said “she does not want to live like an illiterate person in a walled compound and deliver children” as her mother and grandmother had done.
For Shahid, wanting a better life than your parents had is despicable. Yet parents the world over will say that is exactly what they want for their children.
It is also what Malala wants for the children of those who consider her their enemy. Earlier this week Jon Stewart of The Daily Show asked Malala what she would say to the man who shot her if she had the chance and she responded: “I would tell him how important education is and that I would even want education for your children as well.”
The UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization says that at least 57 million elementary-school aged children are not receiving schooling, while 120 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are functionally illiterate — and most of these are girls and women. Education for girls carries long-term benefits for an entire society. The UN says that making sure mothers have at least a basic education could save 1.7 million children from malnutrition and stunted growth annually.
In Taiwan, girls no longer face blatant discrimination when it comes to receiving an education as they once did, but many are still being told that there is no need for girls to be too well educated, that it is still more important to be able to find a husband — and that once they are married, they need to have a son.
As in several other countries in Asia, including China, South Korea and India, the gender ratio of newborns in Taiwan has become skewed in favor of males — even though polls have shown that only a small number of Taiwanese prefer boys over girls. The “natural” male-to-female ratio is 105:100; in 2010, the ratio was 110.2:100 in Taiwan, according to the Bureau of Health. For women having a second or third child, the ratio is even higher. The long-term impact on social stability of such a bias is clear, even in nations that do not have as low a birth rate as Taiwan does.
While girls in Taiwan may take the right to an education for granted, they can still take inspiration from Malala to pursue their goals and dreams. As the Ghanian education Kwegyir Aggrey said more than 90 years ago: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”