Girl Rising Malala Fires Up a New Generation
Last fall Malala Yousafza, a 15-year-old blogger in Pakistan, was gunned down for demanding the right to an education. She has taken her message to the UN, and girls worldwide are fighting back against violence and oppression. A global movement is taking shape.
For Diya, the rebellion began in India on the day she sat at the police station, a shy 13-year-old girl, and was able to find words for the unspeakable: "He did something bad to me." She chose not to be silent though the man had said: "If you tell on me, I will kill your brother." She chose to testify.
She told the police about how she had left the house, a girl with barrettes in her hair clutching a metal bucket. Diya's parents had sent her out to fetch some water from the village faucet, which was only a few steps from her house. She was anxious to get back home quickly. It was her favorite time of the day, the few hours before going to sleep. Diya loved the stories she saw on TV when her family watched together in the evenings. She liked Bollywood star Salman Khan, especially his smile. That was in April.
Now it's May and Diya wants to learn now to break a man's nose. She wants to learn how to knock out a man, how to trample on his testicles and jam a key into his eye. She wants to learn how to kill a man.
Diya has been her name since that evening, when a man grabbed her in the village and dragged her into the courtyard of an empty house, and pressed his mouth against hers so violently that she couldn't even scream. It's a name she is supposed to hide behind. By law, no one is permitted to reveal the name of a rape victim. But Diya doesn't want to hide. She comes from a poor Dalit family, or "untouchables," the lowest rung in the Indian caste system. The man who took away her childhood was an alcoholic without a wife or a job. But he was from a higher caste, and he believed that Dalit girls could be used. It had always been that way in the past. But this time he was mistaken.
In the past, Diya's father probably wouldn't have urged her to tell the truth, and they probably wouldn't have gone to the police, either. But much had happened in the preceding months in India, and elsewhere.
A Children's Rights Movement?
All around the world there are stories like Diya's, stories that depict the world as a barbaric place and stories about children who have decided to fight back. There is the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old blogger from Pakistan who paid for her love of learning with two bullets in her head, who survived and continues to fight for girls' education. There are the "wedding busters" in Bangladesh, young people who go into villages to protect children from forced marriages. And there are the Kenyan girls who refuse to submit to female genital mutilation, knowing full well that their refusal could destroy their families.
Western reactions to stories like these tend to slide between horror and apathy. In their book "Half the Sky," American authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the ordinary is often overlooked. "We journalists tend to be good at covering events that happen on a particular day, but we slip at covering events that happen every day, such as the quotidian cruelties inflicted on women and girls."
Women are disappearing. Development experts estimate that, for various reasons, there is a shortage of 60 to 100 million women in the world. Female fetuses are more likely to be aborted. Girls die of neglect, or as a result of complications from genital mutilation or domestic violence. Sometimes girls who are still children themselves die while giving birth. In fact, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among female teenagers in the developing world.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has focused on children's rights since leaving office, has presented a study on the issue, and he believes that something resembling a children's rights movement is emerging. Brown writes that, for the first time, it isn't adults but girls who see themselves as the leaders of their movement, girls who become involved in political battles or even ignite such conflicts. After the shooting of Malala in Pakistan, Brown wrote: "For one Malala shot and temporarily silenced, there are now thousands of younger Malalas ready to come forward who will not be silenced."
Malala Speaks at the UN
Today, Malala will give a speech at the United Nations. A UN petition for girls' education titled "I am Malala" is attracting attention around the world. A "Generation Malala" has come of age, and it includes girls and young women like Diya in India, Isadora in Brazil, Valentini in South Africa, Sina in Cambodia and Nahla in Egypt. They are part of a generation that is no longer willing to take for granted that being a woman can be life-threatening. Is it the beginning of a rebellion, or even a revolution?
India has changed radically in the past few months. After the ordeal of a young woman named Jyoti Singh Pandey, who was tortured and raped by six men on a bus and later died in a hospital, a new rage erupted over things that had long been commonplace. Suddenly newspapers were constantly writing about the suffering of India's daughters, and about the rapes of four- and five-year-old girls. Suddenly tens of thousands of women were taking to the streets all over India. In Delhi, government offices were inundated with women applying for a gun license. In the state of Bihar, women attacked a man who had allegedly raped his nine-year-old daughter, and shaved off his hair, eyebrows and moustache. There was even a lynching in a Mumbai slum, where four women killed a man whom they viewed as an offender when he emerged naked from his hut.
Indian women have resorted to vigilante justice, because they no longer believe that the men in law enforcement will protect them from other men.
Diya's Rebellion in India
Diya, who is growing up in this rough time, sits on a bed in a small house in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh, her spindly legs hanging over the edge. She looks at the teenage girls who have come rushing into the room, members of a martial arts group called the "Red Brigade." They are wearing long, red shirts. Red is the color of danger and combat, they say.
They talk about the school principal who touched a girl's breasts, and the female classmate who was raped and never returned to school afterward. They talk about ways to defend themselves.
For two years the girls practiced fighting with words, listening to the advice of their leader, a 25-year-old woman they call "big sister." Big sister had told them to ask their parents questions like: Why does my brother get more food than me? Why does he get milk while I don't? Why is he allowed to continue going to school while I am not?
They have been learning kung fu since January, and Diya is now part of the group. Her father called the leader of the Red Brigade, thinking that perhaps the girls could somehow help his daughter.
The girls in the group stick together, even across caste barriers, which is almost unheard of in India. It helps make her new life more bearable. Diya's old life no longer suits her. Her family had intended to marry her off next year, at 14, which is still fairly common in India. But they stopped talking about marriage after Diya was raped. It will be difficult to convince a man to marry a girl who has been raped.
Diya's new life begins with her going back to school, like the other girls in the Red Brigade. The group wants to get her books and a school uniform, which she wouldn't be able to afford otherwise. The man who raped Diya on that evening in April tried to deprive her of her future. Now the girls of the Red Brigade are trying to help give her a different kind of future.