Pakistan is today counting the costs of a week of carnage in which teachers and pupils have been violently attacked simply because they want to go to school. As pupils gathered at the Baldia Town School this morning for an awards ceremony, grenades were hurled into the building and then shots rang out. The school's head teacher, Abdul Rasheed, was murdered and five school children are now in hospital. Three of them are in critical condition and fighting for their lives.
While no one has yet accepted responsibility for the carnage, the perpetrators are thought to be from a Taliban terrorist sect known as TPP. Their campaign of violence against girls' education has now moved from the tribal areas into Karachi -- one of the country's huge cities.
The latest attack follows the murder earlier this week in the Khyber tribal district of Shahnaz Nazli, a 41 year old teacher gunned down in front of one of her children only 200 meters from the all-girls school where she taught.
But this time the wave of terror attacks -- orchestrated by opponents of girls' education -- is provoking a domestic and international response, a groundswell of public revulsion similar to that which followed the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, who was also shot simply for wanting girls to go to school.
Today, on top of a petition now on www.educationenvoy.org calling for the cessation of violence against teachers who are defending the right of girls to go to school, a scholarship fund in honour of the slain Shahnaz Nazil is being announced by Education International, the world teachers' organisation with 30 million members. The memorial to Shahnaz will support Pakistani teachers and students victimised simply because of their support for girls' schooling.
The petition and memorial signal a fight back against attempts to ban girls' education and come in the wake of the intervention of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who in a special communique has spoken out against the shooting of Shahnaz and given his personal support to teachers persecuted for their advocacy of girls' education.
However, this week's attacks are a stark reminder to the world of the persistence of threats, intimidation, shootings, arson attacks and sometimes even murder that are the Taliban's weapons in a war against girls' opportunity.
Last October, shocked by the attempted assassination of Malala and pressured by a petition signed by three million people, the Pakistani government agreed for the first time to legislate compulsory free education and provided stipends for three million children.
Now authorities in Pakistan are under international pressure to deploy their security services to ensure the safety and protection of teachers and girls trying to go to school.
Last October's demonstrations were a spontaneous response from girls who identified with Malala's cause as she fought for her life in Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Now these girls are being joined by a high profile campaign by teachers themselves who are determined to stand up for girls' education and take their campaign even to the most dangerous of places, despite the threat to their own lives.
The protests are timely. Achieving universal girls' education will be one of the major themes of meetings this month in Washington D.C. on April 17th and 18th, when the UN Secretary General and the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim -- spurred on by the recent loss of momentum in meeting the Millennium Development Goal on education -- will meet countries that are off-track in securing universal primary education.
Worried that the figure of 32 million girls still unable to go to primary school remains stubbornly high, they will consider plans to use legislation, investment incentives and reform to move further and faster to full enrolment of girls by the end of 2015.
However, if the cultural discrimination that keeps girls from school is to end, then a popular movement that challenges the prejudices of the extremists is urgently needed.
It can build on an increasingly vocal public sentiment against the exclusion of girls. For while over the past several years Pakistani Taliban militants have destroyed hundreds of schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province alone, there is now also a fight back under way led by girls themselves and their teachers. When I visited Pakistan in the wake of Malala's shooting I saw at first hand the determination of girls wearing 'I Am Malala' headbands. No longer were they prepared to be part of a silent majority unwilling to speak up for girls' education. Instead, they were becoming an assertive voice on the streets and online for their rights. In the last few weeks in Pakistan alone, girls and boys who are out of school have signed a petition demanding education which has now one million signatures.
Defiance against attacks on schools is also growing in Afghanistan, where for years teachers and girls have been under pressure to stay away from school because despite the removal of the Taliban from national government they still remain powerful in the tribal areas. It is estimated that as many as 400 schools have also been shut in Afghanistan as the Taliban have sought to impose their control in tribal areas. Some parents have taken their children out of school because they do not want to be trapped in the middle of the crossfire between the Taliban and the security forces. There have even been allegations that Taliban extremists were poisoning school girls by infecting the schools water supply.
Yet, remarkably schools are being kept open and some are being reopened by determined teachers and pupils. Some teachers have gone underground, sometimes under the disguise of classes offering only sewing lessons while actually continuing to teach girls. In total 4 million Afghan girls are now at school.
Education International has a proud record in defending teachers against abuse, intimidation and harassment. Their decision to intervene openly in Pakistan for the rights of teachers opens a new front in the battle to ensure girls are educated.
It is a reminder that while our 21st century debates are about the empowerment of girls and their right to develop their full potential, in some parts of the world the 19th and 20th century battles for basic rights -- freedom from violence, freedom from child labour, child marriage, child trafficking, and the right to an education free from violence -- have still to be won.
But, as the forthcoming teachers' initiative and the UN Secretary General's vocal support both demonstrate, the voices in favour of these basic rights for girls cannot any longer be silenced. As this is a movement that is now being forged at the grassroots by girls demanding their human rights and by teachers organising in support of them, 2013 -- which has started with so many violent attacks on girls schools -- can still become the year when the cause of universal girls' education becomes unstoppable.
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