Skip to main content

Candidates, answer the 'Malala question'

By Suzanne Nossel, Special to CNN
October 16, 2012 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
Pakistani Christians attend a prayer service for the recovery of teen activist Malala Yousufzai in Lahore on Sunday, November 11. Pakistan celebrated Malala Day on Saturday as part of a global day of support for the teenager shot by the Taliban. Pakistani Christians attend a prayer service for the recovery of teen activist Malala Yousufzai in Lahore on Sunday, November 11. Pakistan celebrated Malala Day on Saturday as part of a global day of support for the teenager shot by the Taliban.
HIDE CAPTION
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
=Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
Supporters rally behind Malala
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Suzanne Nossel: Shooting of 14-year-old girl shows resurgent, repressive Taliban
  • She says presidential candidates must answer: Will they take action to push back?
  • She says in talks on region's future, women's rights chronically left out
  • Nossel: U.S. must tie women's rights to laws on appropriations, policies in region

Editor's note: Suzanne Nossel is executive director of Amnesty International USA

(CNN) -- The shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan's Swat Valley has awakened the world to the dangers a resurgent Taliban poses to the rights and safety of girls and women, particularly those who are human rights activists like Malala.

Here is a question for Tuesday's presidential debate: Will Malala's shooting prompt concrete steps to prevent more of such attacks, which potentially affect tens of thousands of girls and women --and could seal the fate of an entire region?

Late last week, as the teenager lay hooked to a ventilator, her recovery uncertain, the Taliban pledged to come after her and her family again to punish her efforts to keep girls schools open. This is the mark of a committed foe of women's rights, impervious to how its brutality has outraged the people of Pakistan and the globe. The Taliban appears determined to extinguish women's freedom at any cost.

Profile: Malala -- Global symbol, but still just a kid

Suzanne Nossel
Suzanne Nossel

The stakes are undeniable, yet the fate of women has been glaringly absent from nearly all high-profile discussions on the future of Afghanistan and the wider region. When NATO heads of state met last May in Chicago, it was not until protests were held by Amnesty International and other groups that women were even included as full members of the Afghan delegation. Once invited into the room, Afghan women reported that they were denied a significant role in summit deliberations or decisions.

Join CNN for the presidential debates
Watch Tuesday's presidential debate and CNN's exclusive expert analysis starting at 7 p.m. ET on CNN TV, CNN.com and CNN's mobile apps. Become an analyst for your friends with our new online clip-and-share feature that lets you share your favorite debate moments on Facebook and Twitter.

At last week's vice presidential debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, there was extensive discussion of Afghanistan, but no mention of women. The issue has scarcely figured in President Obama's many statements and speeches about the region. As we approach the final debates of this campaign season, it is vital that the candidates answer the "Malala question."

This is not an easy problem to solve. As the United States and its allies draw down, security responsibility is being transferred to Afghan government forces without sufficient steps or resources to protect civilians. Funding for development is tenuous, at best. Institutions are weak, and outside influence by key governments and other actors is limited.

In Swat Valley, violence and harm to civilians is coming from a range of sources, including U.S. drones in parts of Pakistan. While their challenges differ, the rule of law in both Afghanistan and Swat Valley ranges from fragile to nonexistent.

But women's rights in Afghanistan and Taliban-influenced areas of Pakistan must not be written off as a lost cause. Nor is it good enough to simply proclaim that something must be done. The Taliban's siege on women puts the impressive rhetorical and legal commitments to women's rights over the past few decades to perhaps its most visible and high-stakes test. It is not just about women. Communities, local economies, indeed the entire region suffers if women are kept from contributing.

Before 9/11, the Taliban in Afghanistan was notorious worldwide for its iron, repressive rule toward the country's more than 17 million women. Women were barred from education, professions and even from leaving their homes without being accompanied by a man. Maternal mortality levels were among the world's highest.

In the decade since the Taliban's overthrow in Afghanistan, modest but key strides have been made. Today, 3 million girls go to school, compared to virtually none under the Taliban. Women make up 20% of university graduates, and their numbers are growing. Maternal mortality and infant mortality have declined, and 10% of all prosecutors and judges are women, while there were none under the Taliban.

Gupta: Malala responses are positive
Gordon Brown: Malala attack 'unspeakable'
Teen shot by Taliban arrives in the UK
14-year-old activist clings to life

Securing and advancing these gains if the Taliban grows in influence will be difficult. Members of the Afghan Women's Network, a women's rights consortium, express grave concern about the future, but also fierce determination not to see the clock rolled back. They have also joined Amnesty International in outlining a specific action plan of steps that must be taken in Afghanistan that may have relevance to Swat Valley, as well.

World: Attack on Pakistani schoolgirl galvanizes anti-Taliban feeling

One of the most important of these is a guarantee of significant, secure financial support controlled by women's institutions and organizations in the region. Development funds and economic activities are being funneled through Afghan government ministries in an effort to build up those institutions. But unless local women's organizations, including those serving rural areas, have unimpeded access to steady funds, the work and influence of dozens of organizations working to promote women's education, health care, freedom from violence, economic opportunities and rights are in jeopardy. These groups and their leaders are the best bulwark against regression and deserve assured support.

As internal deliberations and political maneuvering over the region's future unfold, local actors, the United Nations, outside partners, funders and the media must keep up the pressure to ensure that women are heard around the negotiating table and within government organs in the region. Women's rights must be codified in all negotiated instruments, and existing legal and constitutional guarantees strengthened and enforced. A wide range of governments and institutions globally will continue to hold sway over subjects like the handling of terrorist militants in the region. They need to use that influence to weigh in consistently on behalf of the region's girls and women.

Critically, the number of women at all levels in national security and police forces must be increased through incentives, recruitment efforts and training to ensure that those serving in military and law enforcement roles do not suffer discrimination and can do their jobs.

The U.S. presidential candidates should endorse and Congress should enact legislation focused on addressing the threat posed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. This legislation should be tied to larger U.S. policies and appropriations in relation to Afghanistan and Swat Valley. A new law is the best way to ensure that sufficient funds are set aside and that women's rights and their status are rigorously tracked and reviewed.

Having cited the betterment of women as one justification for its invasion of Afghanistan 11 years ago, the United States needs to show that it is not turning its back on the region's women. When Malala is well enough she should be the one to decide whether she wants such an effort dubbed "Malala's law." It would be an apt naming.

Opinion: Girl's courage, Taliban's cowardice

It took a point-blank assassination attempt of a 14-year old girl to get the world to pay attention to the threat to women from a resurgent Taliban. Unless the shooting of Malala is news heard round the world, prompting sustained action in government offices, legislatures, newsrooms, U.N. halls and public squares, her fate may foretell the lot of millions of other women and girls, and the destiny of an entire region.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Suzanne Nossel.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT