This is the second in a series of blogs by Gordon Brown written from WEF in Davos, looking at the growing global empowerment of young women. Stay up to date by signing up at www.educationenvoy.org.
When Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban last year for daring to go to school, girls took to the streets in mass numbers for the first time. When I visited Pakistan weeks after the assassination attempt, everywhere I went I found girls taking action: writing letters, signing petitions, producing poems or drawings. This new demonstration of the power of girls energised Pakistan civil society. Having organised a million-strong nationwide petition for free universal education, ordinary Pakistanis then decided to highlight the millions of children — mainly girls — who have been excluded from school and denied their basic right to education. Now a second million-strong petition, signed by those losing out on education — in the main young girls — is in the works to be presented to the Pakistani government.
But the recent reaction to rape in India has taken the demonstrations to a new level. Left to adults alone, this awful gang rape would have brought forth the usual responses when atrocities occur: dismay, then shock, and then, after a day or two, the predictable statements we hear from political leaders that this must never happen again — just before sentiment subsides. But, with people shocked to the core by the murder of a modest, conscientious medical student, who was raped and left for dead when accosted while out with her boyfriend, the mood has shifted from pleas for change to urgent timetables demanding it.
As the trial of the accused takes place in Delhi, we can see that the mood on the streets is more than the heat-of-the-moment anger we are used to. Underlying it now is a steely and defiant determination that action must follow words — young girls saying they will no longer accept the casual disregard and routine neglect of their concerns. Now the authorities are being forced to bring in reforms, from fast-track rape courts to changes in sentencing policy.
In fact girls are saying that these outrages can no longer be classified as just ‘one more terrible rape,’ ‘one more awful shooting’, ‘one more disgraceful act of violence against a girl’. They must instead signal a turning point. They must mark the end of a particular era, one typified by adult complacency about the violation of children’s rights, and the beginning of a new era, one where instead of being silent about the exploitation of girls we are vociferous about ensuring their education and empowerment.
It is not just that this generation of girls has become far more assertive in demanding that its rights be upheld. It is that girls who wish to make their voices heard are no longer prepared to be mere protestors. They have become more than demonstrators complaining about the violation of their rights: they have now become change-makers, demanding the righting of wrongs.
The protests about violence against women remind us that too many men in 2013 still treat women as their chattels, to be exploited and brutalized. But they also illustrate that those who violate rights are being challenged head-on by women — and men, too — who are intent on righting wrongs. The very act of declaring ‘child marriage-free zones’ reminds us that even in 2013 patriarchs still attempt to dictate their daughters’ destinies. But it also demonstrates that patriarchy will not hold back girls’ aspirations for ever. The demand from girls to go to school reminds us that, for most of history, adults have been able to dictate whether the next generation is free to dream of a better future or not. Now girls themselves are saying that their elders cannot trample on their basic rights any longer.
The internet is radicalizing a new generation of young people. Just as opinions during the Arab Spring spread rapidly via new technologies, so girls are today communicating, exchanging views and learning more about other young people. And because they are making connections across old borders, breaking down traditional barriers, crossing ancient divides and smashing long-established walls of prejudice, they are learning from each other about rights and opportunities.