Lighting a Candle Against the Dark

10/10/2013 03:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Malala Yousafzhai's autobiography, I am Malala, was released this week, an especially fitting time ahead of Friday's UN International Day of the Girl Child. Nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is the teenage Pakistani activist known for her courageous determination to attend school. Last year, a group of Taliban brutes stormed her school bus and, after calling out her name, they shot her in the head at point blank range. Miraculously, Malala survived, but around the world, so many more young girls will not survive, and though it may not be a bullet that will take them, the global neglect that will allow them to wither and die, is surely as deadly. At every stage of life, females are still at risk in places like Afghanistan and India, both of which were named among the "world's most dangerous countrys [sic] in which to be born a woman." And it is not just the lack of medical care and outrageously high maternal mortality rates that account for the challenges that confront women and girls, it is rape, persistent violence and neglect that will stalk them throughout their often short lives. In India, the UN estimates that girls are 75 % more likely than boys, to die before the age of 5. That statistic alone is proof enough that, at least in India, females are still considered as worthless as yesterday's bread.

India is not alone. A recent survey by the British charity, Plan UK, found, that even in their moments of direst need, young girls are somehow the last to be helped. Aid agencies, though well-intentioned and attempting to target the neediest in moments of disaster, have too often failed the most vulnerable -- adolescent girls. But that unintended neglect has been recognized, and these days, aid agencies are redoubling their efforts to find and protect girls. The International Rescue Committee has made a concerted effort to target girls caught in crisis, to save them from harm and deliver them to the full possibilities that education and empowerment provide.

These days, even in the best of times there is still misery, and around the world, one in five young girls will spend her days, not in school, but in work. It is in those bleakest corners where a girl's very existence is shaped by the daily realities of poverty, conflict and intolerance.

But all is not lost. We can save the future if we stand together for the hidden Malalas around the world. If we join their struggle, we lift not just them, but ourselves as well, into the light, and it is in that light that a girl's sweetest dreams can be dreamed and her fondest wishes can be nurtured to achievement. The future lies in the shining eyes of a tiny girl bent to a rice paddy or pounding laundry at a chilly stream, and it lies in Malala Yousufzhai, whose boundless courage and optimistic spirit have shed light and attention on the once hidden miseries of so many girls. Malala reminds us that even in the world's darkest hours, hope lives, and that hope is never more evident than in the promise of a young girl who has learned that she matters to all of us. And this Friday, as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is announced, I'll be holding my breath until I hear the name that will mean so much to so many -- Malala Yousafzhai -- the girl who had the courage to light a candle against the darkness.