THE BLOG
10/21/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The School Girl Who Took on the Taliban

I Am Malala has been an Amazon bestseller since the day it was released, on October 8, 2013 -- the eve of the first anniversary of the assassination attempt of Malala Yousafzai.

Last year, in Malala's village in Pakistan, schools were blown up by the Taliban, and girls were forbidden from continuing beyond a basic education of the ABCs and 123s. In a world where men can take four wives, girls were married off as soon as they hit puberty -- many to very old grandfathers. They were restricted from going out in public, prevented from earning their own keep, given no voice, choice or vote and were many times victims of violence. If they tried to resist this, as Malala did, they were shot or disfigured.

By the grace of God, Malala survived, where many others have not. And she has emerged even more powerful, with a commitment to help girls worldwide to receive an education through MalalaFund.org.

Fortunately, Malala is not alone in this commitment. On September 27, 2013, I interviewed Melanne Verveer, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. In 2009, Ambassador Verveer became the first Ambassador of Global Women's Issues, under President Obama. The post was created to promote stability, peace, and development by empowering women politically, socially, and economically around the world. Ambassador Verveer is continuing her commitment now at Georgetown.

Natalie Pace: I was fortunate enough to hear Malala Yousafzai speak at the Clinton Global Initiative in NYC last month. What poise and strength she has!

Melanne Verveer: When you think of how close to death she was... What a brave girl she is.

I've heard you say that when you empower a woman, you empower the village. Has Malala's bravery transformed her village? Are schools open? Are young girls having access to education?

There continues to be a resoluteness among the girls, and the families that support them, to go to school. In some parts of the world, it's a very risky proposition, as Malala evidences, and as happens in Afghanistan. There are some real pushbacks by extremist forces. But what you find everyplace -- and it's so inspirational, even as difficult as it is -- is how much, despite the threats, the girls want to be in school. Their parents want them to go to school. In Afghanistan, they might have acid thrown in their faces and be terribly harmed, and yet as quickly as they can heal, they want to be back in school. Or schools will be burned or threatened in some ways, and it won't stop them. It's that kind of resoluteness and resilience that Malala demonstrates that just makes you want to do everything you can to help.

If that was happening in the developed world, there are laws and there is a judiciary. Is it at the legal or the enforcement level where these girls are being failed?

You are right. If this were happening in places where there is a rule of law, and there's a system of justice that is enforced, you would see perpetrators of these kinds of crimes, and they are crimes, to meet up with the justice system. But it isn't happening, and that's why the world reaction of what happened to Malala, which happens to other girls, is so critical because it raises the importance of the girls themselves, their potential, their own human rights and dignity. But it also raises the spectre of what is being done in these societies to these criminals. You need a groundswell at the grassroots level and you need tremendous commitment and resoluteness at the leadership level to really put an end to this. You need heat at the top and you need heat at the bottom.

What needs to be done at the bottom? So many women in the Western world want to help, but just don't know how to.

You need to change mindsets. You need people to understand how critical this is and to rally at the local level. And then you need government to do what it is about, and one of the things it is about is enforcing the laws.

In your new post as the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, you are supporting scholarship, research and outreach worldwide. Where will you be focusing, and what areas are most exciting to you?

So much of our world is going through tremendous political transition. Women are like the canaries in the coalmine. If their conditions are reversed, or worse, if they are denied their rights, the connection with the instability of countries is right there. It goes hand in hand. Secondly, conflicts are often waged in ways that target women and girls, where rape is a strategic tool of the conflict to divide societies and communities. Women bear an enormous price. Women are rarely at the peace tables, engaged in ensuring that the issues that caused these conflicts -- the kinds of things that they know everyday from what happens on the ground -- are actually addressed in the discussions. We have to do a better job in ensuring that the role that women can play and must play, that they played in Northern Ireland and Rwanda and other places, is something that is not exceptional, but that becomes the norm. As societies are able to move out of conflict and get through these massive transformations, then the economic role of women becomes particularly important. Without access to economic opportunity, the likelihood of stabilizing those situations is not fully realized. One of the things that we are doing at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security is to work to create that base of research and data that really demonstrates how critically important these kinds of considerations are. You know this well, Natalie, from your own work, the importance that women play in economies, in growing economies and contributing to job creation. There is a real effort to undergird the very important work that women are doing on the frontlines of peace and security today.

Rwanda is now the country with the highest representation of women in parliament, at 64%, according to their government website. How did that come about?

That came out of the terrible genocide that they went through. During that enormous transition, it was recognized that women had a very important role to play, coming across the deep divisions in their society to heal and to put together the policies and programs that would enable them to overcome what they had just been through.

In Northern Ireland, women were the leaders in pushing for peace. Are women better at peace and healing than men?

When women are engaged in this process, they do bring another dimension. This is not an issue of women being better than men or men better than women. It's taking that experience of half of the population, and in some cases, more than half, particularly after conflicts like this, and really ensuring that their perspective is brought to bear on decisions that are being made. Reconciliation, human rights, economic issues, those are the issues that women will put on the table. I remember meeting with Tutsi and Hutu women after the terrible tragedy in Rwanda, and one of the first things they wanted to do together was to create a safe space for children, maybe the kinds of things that we would refer to as playgrounds. It sounds simple, but they were looking for those ways to heal a community that was deeply divided. It was symbolic in many ways of the kind of deeper and broader work that had to be done across their society.

The children playing together...

Helps to create a new vision of what Rwanda could be.

What are your concerns about the Syrian refugee camps and the safety of women there?

It's a terrible tragedy. One of the last things I did in my position as ambassador was to spend some time with Syrian women. There is tremendous sexual violence. The UK, with the support of the U.S. and others, has been very active in ameliorating the conditions. There is so much that needs to be done. But there is no better future unless women are engaged in the process that helps to create that better future.

How much of a factor was youth unemployment with the Arab Spring? Not just women, but young men also?

One of the things that we've seen in this Arab Spring, Arab Awakening, however it is defined, starting with that vendor who put himself on fire in Tunisia, is this longing for self determination, for dignity, for opportunity. The status quo was something that was not responding to the critical needs of society in those countries. You saw many women, often for the first time in a public way, on the front lines trying to move this change forward, whether it was in Egypt or in Libya, or even in Yemen. Tawakkol Karman, who was the Nobel Peace laureate in 2011 from Yemen, said that women in this very tradition-bound society, covered that they were, were in the public squares demonstrating that they wanted to see change. She said to me, "Our women were asleep. But now they are awakened and they are not about to go back to sleep." It's going to be a long time, no one knows how long, until those situations are resolved. We have to ensure that progress for women is not reversed in this process because women were so much of a part of trying to create an opportunity for a better life in all of the ways that we would define that.

I'm sure that you've heard the statistics that women in the U.S. under 30 are now earning more than their spouses and boyfriends. That is as a result of women graduating in greater numbers from colleges and graduate school programs. Now there is concern about how schools are failing our boys...

We want men and women, boys and girls, all to succeed. This should not be a zero sum game in terms of opportunities, that as women continue to grow their presence in the economic sector, in our country or anywhere, men lose in the process. Actually, everybody gains. We are all lifted up, when we are all participating. That is certainly true in terms of the economy.

What are you looking forward to in your new role at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security?

I hope we will continue to put the spotlight on the important role that women play in this peace and security space, but also continue a lot of the work that you are very familiar with -- the whole economic piece and how critical entrepreneurship and workplace participation is to growing economies, jobs and creating a better life for women and their families.

I'm excited about the number of NGOs who partner U.S. women with women in other countries. Sometimes it's challenging from a technology perspective, to have women here mentoring young women in Kenya, but the results are so impressive.

Our world is getting smaller in so many ways. We are all connected, even on a higher level. What happens in other places affects us in the United States. The kind of work that you have been personally involved in, in the mentoring that you describe, is really important. Imagine that being multiplied by so many others, and what a huge difference it makes.

It's such a small amount of time, with such a huge amount of gain. Thank you, Ambassador Verveer, for your time and your ongoing commitment to empowering and educating women and girls worldwide.

While receiving the Clinton Global Citizens Award on September 25, 2013, Malala Yousafzai declared her conviction to empowering underserved girls and women worldwide, saying, "I know the issues are issues are complex and enormous. But the solution is one and simple. That is education, education, education."

For us to support Malala (and Ambassador Verveer's lifelong work), the task is even simplier.