After 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for standing up for the right of every girl to go to school, the resulting outcry in Pakistan proved that attitudes toward women in my country can progress. Still, so much remains to be done, from education to law enforcement, to make a real difference — and the international community must do its part to help.
My heart weeps for Malala, and I continue to pray for her renewed health. At this time, Pakistan should also reflect on its own path of progress and renewal: on how far it has come, and on the great journey that lies ahead.
In 2002, I was gang-raped by a neighbouring clan carrying out “honour revenge.” Long after the physical wounds healed, the emotional scars endure. Also enduring is the memory that when I first raised my voice, bringing my case to the authorities in the pursuit of justice, many told me it was better to keep quiet, not to bring further “shame” on my family.
Today, a decade on, the case of Malala evokes a different reaction. This time, the Pakistani people stood with her. “We are all Malala,” said the formerly silent majority. Pakistanis understood that Malala’s fight is for the future of all of us. Her light has shone deep into the heart of the nation.
Malala showed Pakistani women that they now have a voice: a voice to demand their rights; a voice which even a courageous child can use; a voice which can defy the forces of darkness seeking to silence it. And Malala’s voice resonated far beyond Pakistan. Her story affected women and men everywhere, as witnessed by the solidarity rallies held worldwide.
Great change can come from small alterations occurring on the micro level. My own experience is an example.
Believing that education ends oppression, I used money judicially awarded to me as compensation to set up a local school for girls. The process of acceptance has been long, but today the parents of the girls studying in my school are finally behind them. They are no longer frightened of the effects of educating girls, despite the same scare-mongering that many extremists — like those who shot Malala — continue to preach.
But so much more must be done. Victims of rape and cruelty in Pakistan are still denied justice. When my rapists were released in 2011, I lost any remaining faith I had in the Pakistani justice system. The release of these men is undoubtedly a major step back for the women of my village, for the women of Pakistan; for all of Pakistan.
When Pakistan appeared recently before the UN Human Rights Council for a periodic review of its human rights record, the government described the last four years as “the most active period of legislation-making on human rights in Pakistan’s 65-year history.”
It is indeed true, and welcome, that several laws have been adopted on women’s rights, including one protecting women from violence in the home and workplace. The problem, however, is the widespread lack of enforcement.
Similarly, the right to education was admirably included in the Pakistani constitution. Yet I continue to battle daily to make education accessible to all, irrespective of religion, sex, geography and socio-economic status. Good laws are made, but they are never acted upon. The government, including the police, must take responsibility.
The United Nations has shown that the international community can also play a role. On Nov. 10, the UN — led by special education envoy Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister — marked Malala Day, issuing a global call for girls everywhere to enjoy their basic right to education.
But the UN can and must do so much more.
That is why I attended this week’s fifth annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, organized by the non-governmental organization UN Watch together with 20 other human rights groups, and with support from Canada. On Tuesday in Geneva, I joined top-name dissidents from China, Cuba, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Russia, Sudan and Syria in a concerted effort to influence the human rights agenda days before dignitaries arrive here to open the 2013 UN Human Rights Council session.
Pakistan was just elected to the Council, and therefore bears a special obligation to uphold the protection of human rights.
The UN can help rape victims like me, and other unempowered women in Pakistan, by calling on Pakistan to implement its international undertakings to respect our universal right to human dignity and equality, and to truly guarantee access to education. Pakistan can live up to its council membership pledges and obligations by transforming good words into needed actions.
Let there be no more Malalas or Mukhtar Mais who have to suffer trauma and pain for Pakistanis, and the world, to work toward a better future.
Makhtar Mai runs an organization promoting women’s education in Pakistan. Her website is mukhtarmai.org.