Skip to main content

Candidates, answer the 'Malala question'

By Suzanne Nossel, Special to CNN
updated 5:34 PM EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
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
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT