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Oliver: Schoolgirl’s story is new chapter in old fight

The story of Malala Yousufzai makes me teary-eyed.

The 15-year-old Pakistani girl is recovering in Britain after being shot Oct. 9 while she was returning home from school in the northwest Swat Valley in Pakistan.

She was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban because she is an outspoken advocate of education for girls.

When she was 11, she wrote a blog for the BBC under a pseudonym to recount what life was like under the Taliban, which opposes girls’ education and schooling that does not follow a strict interpretation of Islam.

When the military ousted the Taliban in 2009, Malala began publicly speaking out about the need to educate girls. She even was given the country’s highest civilian honors for her efforts.

Educating girls in Pakistan, particularly in Malala’s region, remains difficult.

The Taliban has blown up hundreds of schools, and kidnapped and shot education activists like Malala, according to an Associated Press story.

The United Nations reports that only 40 percent of Pakistani girls 15 or younger are literate. And about 50 percent of girls are enrolled in school, according to the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child.

Worse yet, only one in five students is female in the semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghanistan border, where the Taliban has its main sanctuary, according to the U.N.

What’s heartbreaking is that Malala’s only “crime” is that she is a girl.

In too many places around the world, girls suffer for no other reason than their gender.

Even here in the United States, for as much progress as has been made, real equality remains elusive.

It’s disheartening that we still must preface so many achievements with “first female.” First female astronaut. First female Supreme Court justice. First female presidential candidate.

Slowly but surely, though, barriers are being broken.

Still, women’s earnings in 2011 were 77 percent of men’s, compared with 77.4 percent in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in September.

It rarely occurred to me while I was growing up that somehow my gender made me less “fit” to learn. Rarely, if ever, did the subject even come up.

That was a testament to the pioneering women who went before me, the ones who opened the way so that I, and countless American girls like me, wouldn’t even have to think twice.

However, there is a danger there, too.

If we somehow forget the struggle that got us where we are today, do we then take those hard-won victories for granted? Do we value those freedoms and opportunities less? Do we start to view our right to education as ordinary?

Malala Yousufzai does not. She is willing to risk her life to see that she and other Pakistani girls have access to schooling.

To be sure, at least here in the United States, we have come a long way.

But Malala’s story shows that there still is a long, long way to go for the global sisterhood.

• Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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