By age 11, Malala Yousafzai developed what so many adults fail to muster over a life-time — the courage to take a stand.
In 2009 she began writing under a pseudonym about life in the Swat Valley under the Pakistani Taliban’s violent occupation and relentless abuse. Her advocacy for girl’s education gained prominence with Adam B. Ellick’s New York Times documentary Class Dismissed: Malala’s Story.
Not long thereafter, the Pakistani Taliban threatened Malala’s life. She had the choice to be silent or to speak out and risk being killed. She spoke out. Two years ago, on October 9, 2012, she was shot in the head by deranged gunmen.
Her struggle for survival, undaunted courage, and commitment to human rights and girl’s education is inspirational. I hope her example will inspire action.
First, I hope her courage inspires people young and old to stand up for mutual respect and common decency. Most of us will never face the kind of life and death choices Malala did. We face more subtle ones each day — to stand up against sexual harassment, to challenge bigotry, to take action against bullying, to respect one another — or to look the other way. These choices made by millions of us each day shape our environment. We are the front lines.
Second, I hope her determination inspires the Pakistani government and others to invest seriously in education. Pakistan spends a pathetic 2.1% of their GDP on education — the lowest in the country’s history and one of the lowest in the world. At just over 54%, it also ranks among the world’s lowest adult literacy rates. It’s 70% rating on youth literacy is better, but still compares unfavorably within the region. Many of the world’s most corrupt and violence-ridden places — and places in which women are at highest risk — are among the least literate.
We can help, too, by supporting organizations that promote education in conflict zones, like the Central Asia Institute (I consult for them), Aid Afghanistan for Education, Sonia Shah Foundation, and others.
Third, I hope her grace and wisdom inspire the U.S. to become more than just a one-trick-pony when dealing with groups such as ISIL, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and others. Let’s be more than the world’s leader in airstrikes.
To be sure, military action is often required in crisis, and the U.S. does much more than airstrikes. But our focus on bombs dwarfs our attention to other efforts — an orientation that is not unnoticed around the globe.
So let’s do more about crisis prevention. Let’s do more about addressing the underlying drivers that enable such terrorist and militant groups to thrive. Part of that is about seriously promoting peace, dignity, education, good governance, respect for human rights, and international law.
Let’s lead in those ways, too. Sadly, we are not perceived by others as generously as we perceive ourselves. Everyone knows we can put steel on target. Let’s ramp up these other, longer lasting efforts, and amplify our attention to them.
If we are truly leaders, others will follow.
Malala is inspirational. Whether or not we are inspired to action depends on entirely upon us.
Christopher D. Kolenda is the Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London and the President & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, LLC (www.kolendastrategicleadership.com) which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones. A highly decorated former commander of Paratroopers and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a key senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for three Secretaries of Defense and four ISAF Commanders.