Skip to main content

Malala, others on front lines in fight for women

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
January 10, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
Malala Yousafzai leaves a hospital Friday in Birmingham, England. She was treated there after the Taliban shot her in the head.
Malala Yousafzai leaves a hospital Friday in Birmingham, England. She was treated there after the Taliban shot her in the head.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gayle Lemmon: Taliban failed to stop education advocate Malala Yousafzai by shooting her
  • Lemmon: Similar attacks on other women and girls trying to reach their goals were fatal
  • Attacks are efforts to stamp out women's progress, rights and potential, she says
  • She says potential of half the population will not be realized if violence is tolerated

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council of Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- The girl the Taliban wanted dead has not only survived but was able to walk out of the hospital last week. But other highly publicized, vicious attacks on women and girls have not had such triumphant outcomes.

Malala Yousafzai's ordeal is not over yet: Doctors say the 15-year-old campaigner for girls' education, whom gunmen shot in the head as she rode a school bus in Pakistan, will be readmitted in late January or early February for more cranial reconstructive surgery.

She left the hospital just days after gunmen attacked a van in Pakistan's Swabi District, less than an hour from the capital, and killed six women and one man who worked at a children's community center. Five of the dead were teachers; two were health care workers. The center, a charity, offered a school for girls and vaccinations for polio, among other diseases, along with maternal health treatment.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Yet another attack unfolded around the time of Malala's release. India is reeling from the death of a woman who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Brutally gang raped, mutilated and thrown from a bus, the physiotherapy student later died in a Singapore hospital. Her name was not made public in India, but her cause electrified the nation. Her father, who sold family land to move his family to Delhi from rural India to help his daughter realize her education dreams, is left heartbroken.

"She wanted to be a doctor and said it was only a matter of a few years and that when she was a doctor (all our suffering), it will end,'" her father told the BBC. "I remember asking her once, 'Who are all your friends?' She replied, 'Dad, it's only my books I am friends with.'"

Malala's next phase of recovery
Malala Yousafzai walks from hospital
Gang-rape case unleashes fury in India
Discrimination begins in the womb

What all of these attacks have in common, along with their brutality, is that they are attempts at extinguishing the talent and potential of women -- or half of the population. In a world that needs every doctor it can find, every educator and politician who is willing to tackle the status quo, these young women offered a glimpse at a brighter future in which all can contribute.

No less than investment oracle Warren Buffett made that very case recently, referring to the United States, which has seen its share of less brutal attempts to hold women back.

"What a waste of human talent; 50% of the talent of the country we pushed off in a corner for almost 200 years," he said in an interview with Melinda Gates. "It is one of the things that makes me optimistic about the future -- we are getting to the point we are starting to realize we need to use 100% of our talent -- it makes me very optimistic, but we still have a way to go."

His words echoed those of the World Economic Forum in its annual Gender Gap Report.

"The key for the future of any country and any institution is the capability to develop, retain and attract the best talent," the report said. "Empowering and educating girls and women and leveraging their talent and leadership fully in the global economy, politics and society are thus fundamental elements of succeeding and prospering in an ever more competitive world."

Until now these horrific attacks on women and girls, attacks I have written about concerning Afghanistan, have been seen as shameful and isolated incidents. But they are a shared loss in a globalized world.

These young women and their legacies -- Malala, who will continue her fight, and the others, who will not -- are on the front lines of deciding what our world looks like. Will young women who speak out on the need for education be stopped or celebrated? Will girls who dream of becoming doctors stay alive long enough to do so? And when will we realize that their battle is one shared by everyone who dreams of a safer, more stable, more prosperous world in which more people have a stake? Perhaps Buffett's words will help enlist more fighters in the cause. Because the economic and human rights stakes are high.

Increasingly the world is recognizing the value and the contributions of girls and women. But progress is slow while violence is tolerated. And as the attacks in Pakistan show, educating girls remains a potentially deadly line of work.

"They wanted to kill her," said her father not long after gunmen shot his daughter. "But she fell temporarily. She will rise again. She will stand again." He was right.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT