"Our response to such behavior is a bullet," replies a Pakistani man, flatly, when asked if the women in his household could seek an education. “When it comes to our honor, the only answer is a bullet,” he says.
The scene is from a documentary, screened at the 2013 Women in the World summit, that captures the door-to-door crusade of young women fighting for girls' education in Pakistan. The talk of bullets was particularly haunting for the summit's audience, given the event around which this year's gathering was centered: the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot in point-blank range in the head by the Taliban last October for speaking out in support of girls' education in northern Pakistan.
Humaira Bachal, a presenter at the summit, is one of the young girls leading Malala's same fight. And like most education advocates in the country, Humaira is not deterred by the recent events, for she understands the real implications of illiteracy and ignorance. At a talk for students at the Citizens Foundation Sumar Goth School, she recounted the loss of a female relative who, suffering from a stomach ache, died after receiving an injection of medicine meant for horses. She also told of her young cousin who died after eating expired medicine. Humaira believes that these deaths took place because of illiteracy, which can only be erased through education.
In Humaira's own case, her mother, Zainab Bibi, had to find the means to educate her daughter behind her husband's back.
"After I had finished primary school, my father didn't want me to get any education," Humaira said. "I was only going to get married and have children," according to her father, an illiterate truck driver.
But Zainab had other ideas. While she herself wasn't educated, her family in Iran had been. All of her sisters had gone on to higher education, and she understood that the road to opportunity for her own daughter would begin with higher education.
So for three years, Zainab chopped forest wood to sell for school fees, and snuck her daughter to a middle school in another part of Karachi, without her husband catching on. That is, until it came time for Humaira to sit for her ninth grade entrance exams.
"He beat my mother, and he even beat me," she said.
Undeterred by the verbal and physical abuse, as well as the possibility of social boycott in the community, Zainab insisted that her daughter sit for the exams until her husband eventually relented.
Humaira has gone on to start the Dream Foundation, which began as a small private school for a few students in her village in 2003. Now a formal school currently enrolling 1200 students where children pay a rupee a day to attend classes, Humaira still goes door-to-door to convince fathers to educate their daughters. Apart from regular studies, the school also provides computer classes, an adult literacy project, an Islamic education class and separate evening classes for children who work to earn a living during the day.
Humaira's battle for an education is taking place across Pakistan everyday.
The country spends half as much as neighboring India on education. If you are a young girl in rural Pakistan, you are unlikely to ever see the inside of a classroom. Across the country, only 57% of children even enroll in primary school. Fewer than half of those children complete grade five — and the numbers are even worse in the countryside.
Pakistan is not alone: In sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 1 in 5 girls make it to secondary school. Nearly half are married by the time they are 18; 1 in 7 across the developing world marries before she is 15. The leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 worldwide is not violence or disease; it is complications from pregnancy. Girls under 15 are up to five times more likely to die in childbirth than are women in their 20s, and their babies are more likely to die as well.
The reasons to care are manifold. An extra year of primary school boosts girls' eventual wages by 10% to 20%. Girls who stay in school for seven or more years typically marry four years later and have two fewer children than girls who drop out. Fewer dependents per worker allows for greater economic growth. When girls and women earn income, they reinvest 90% of it in their families. They buy books, medicine, bed nets. For men, that figure is more like 30% to 40%.
When Malala was shot, said Humaira, “we realized this was the face of our society.” But she added: “In Pakistan, every day a new Malala” is born. Getting girls in school needs to be a global obsession if we hope to tackle broader issues of poverty, joblessness, and extremism.
As women's issues increasingly penetrate cocktail conversations and book club discussions, girls and women in America must push to translate that talk into actions, as Humaira has. Armed with the technological tools, and more connected to the globe than ever before, the time is ripe to step out of our pseudo-intellectual discourse to bring about change.