There is much to be said about the power of symbols. As Malala Yousufzai stood before the UN General Assembly on her sixteenth birthday, she wore the mantle of another icon of feminine power — Benazir Bhutto.
With beautiful eloquence, she has singlehandedly challenged the preconceptions of those for whom Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) represented a shadowy haven of terrorists and the word “Pashtun” represented a bearded warrior of ferocity beyond reason. For the world, Malala stands today as a symbol of human resilience and potential.
And yet, amid the feverish Facebook updates and sharing of inspirational quotes for Malala Day, she herself has demonstrated, perhaps, the deepest understanding of what she represents. “Today,” she said, “is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”
Even beyond that, it is the day of those whose voices aren’t heard — and most particularly, those whose rights are quashed in the uncertainty of displacement. As of June 2013, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has an updated record of 1.05 million displaced people in just K-P and Fata — up from 758,000 in January. These are the numbers of registered IDPs, most recently forced to move due to conflict in Kurram Agency and the Tirah Valley. While about 10 per cent live in formal camps where immediate humanitarian assistance is provided, the rest have chosen to construct lives outside the camp setting. For the children who have been absorbed into rural K-P or the sprawling peri-urban and urban settlements around Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi, the most basic rights are not guaranteed. Their situation is not dissimilar to that of Malala when she first penned the Diary of a School-girl, fearing for the fate of Swat. If anything, their future is even more obscure.
For young boys, there is the heightened risk of recruitment by militarised groups. For girls, the alien environment has given rise to further constraints. If they were in school before, the interruption in their education may solidify into a permanent one. While their families struggle for survival and access to basic services, very few people are thinking about what will become of the children who have faced the trauma of displacement and are caught in a protracted state of disruption.
It is ironic that there is such little mention of either immediate or durable solutions for these boys and girls, at a time when the world is geared towards investing in education. Within Pakistan, the momentum of the “education emergency” has been sustained and the government itself has committed to providing universal primary schooling. Admittedly, it is particularly difficult for the government to track dispersed IDP populations, or set up permanent schools while hoping that they will soon be able to return home. In waiting, however, crucial opportunities can be lost. Education has the potential to either mitigate or exacerbate conflict. Especially when it comes to these particular communities whose lives have been upset by violence, the future stability of the country depends on the direction that the children will choose.
Malala Yousufzai emerged from a valley where the element of intolerance was an alien one. As a volunteer for the group of schoolgirls accompanying her to Islamabad in 2009, one main takeaway was: the people of Swat wanted to purge the valley of militancy and rebuild their identity of “enlightened moderation” (the phrase of the time). The mindset of the local population was one reason why the operation in Swat is now seen to be among the most successful of its kind.
For other areas where drones and dialogue have both yielded uncertain results, the building of such a mindset will take work. Reaching out to the displaced communities, particularly the young people, is one way of ensuring that the national vision for peace and progress is a consistent one. As an individual, Malala’s story of strength and survival is resounding in the corridors of greatness, as millions of people rush to pledge their support. Ultimately, her power as a symbol is inspiring and galvanising change. That is where we all have a part to play — in drawing lessons from the story, shaping the trend, and truly committing to “Education first”.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2013.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.