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Malala's Impact: When Girls Are Treated Like Adults

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In defending the right of girls to go to school, 14-year old Malala Yousufzai was targeted for assassination by extremists as if she were a frontline activist or political operative in her country's war against extremism. The perpetrators of this brutal crime had no regard for the fact that she was a child. That there was no protective shield around Malala's innocence has outraged Pakistani society. The fact that a young girl was targeted viciously and treated as an adult rather than as the child she is, has reverberated around the world.

By virtue of their gender, girls are both poignant symbols and easy targets. Their potential is exploited and limited, in different ways, in nearly all societies.

Adolescent girls like Malala are disproportionately vulnerable to human rights abuses that can have severe and long lasting consequences. They generally lack adequate ways to defend themselves against abuse by family, teachers or strangers and therefore remain vulnerable to attacks in their homes, schools and communities. As a result, their safety, education, access to justice and ability to develop their human potential is fundamentally compromised.

At Equality Now, we created the Adolescent Girls Legal Defense Fund (AGLDF) to address the unique human rights abuses against girls in early adolescence that harm their self-esteem, strip them of basic rights and deny them access to legal protection, social entitlements and economic opportunities.
Working with partners around the world, we support and publicize legal cases that represent the most common and significant human rights abuses against adolescent girls. Our goal is increasing legal protection for girls through impact litigation and law reform and enhancing the capacity of communities to address adolescent girls' human rights. AGLDF also works to prevent violence against girls by ensuring that legal systems protect girls and deter perpetrators.

In nearly all the cases we work on, girls are treated and tried as adults.

In one case, Wafa an 11-year-old Yemeni girl, had dreams of pursuing her education like Malala before she was married by her father to a 40-year-old man. She hardly understood what was happening when the marriage ceremony took place and she was taken to her new husband's family. She was then forced to abandon her education. Defenders of traditional child marriage often claim that girls betrothed at a young age remain with their parents until they are mature enough to be wives. Stories from child brides around the world, prove this is often not the case.

In her husband's household, Wafa took on a slave-like role, functioning as a servant to an abusive husband and his mother. After a year of marriage, during which she was violently beaten, she escaped and ran home. However, when girls are treated as adults, family is often unable to provide them with adequate protection and support in crisis. Wafa's father died a few months prior to her escape and her mother was unwell. Her husband repeatedly attempted to forcibly take her back.

Working with Yemen Women Union (YWU), Equality Now took on Wafa's case and successfully arranged for a lawyer to represent her. A Yemeni court agreed to grant Wafa a divorce on the condition that she pay back the dower--money that her husband paid her family at the time of marriage but that her father had since spent. The absence of a law banning child marriage in Yemen meant she was unable to get out of the marriage without being subjected to these divorce requirements for women.

In recalling her experience in court, Wafa said, "At the beginning, the judge was very kind and understanding and I believed he would support me. However, when my husband came before the judge, the judge asked me whether my husband used to beat me. At that point, I was so scared of my husband that I changed my answers and said that he did not abuse me. Then I felt the judge changed his attitude toward me."

Wafa has said that the judge disregarded the fact that she is a child. His decision that she either return to her husband or repay the dowry was profoundly disappointing.

Wafa's uncle borrowed money to repay the dower, and the judge consequently issued Wafa a divorce. Her uncle then began pressuring her to marry him.

Wafa remains in limbo. She is now in a shelter, where there is a measure of distance and protection from her uncle. Now 14-years old, the same age as Malala, she has returned to school and is doing better. But without a law banning child marriage, girls like her remain at constant risk of exploitation and abuse.

Wafa recently told us, "My message to other parents is that they should not think of marrying their daughters at a young age. Girls should go to school. I don't want any girl to suffer as I did. Girls should be educated in order to be able to live happily and in dignity."

In Pakistan, Malala's case has risen to such prominence that her perpetrators, if apprehended, are unlikely to receive any impunity. Like the other countries where we work, though, Pakistan is severely lacking in victim-friendly services, legal procedures that accommodate children and girl-centered support services. The Government of Pakistan must take Malala's case through the judicial system to show that, not only is hers an exceptional case, but that all children are entitled to fullest enforcement and protection of the law.

When one girl is violated, children throughout the community are traumatized by what they witness. This includes the other girls injured in Malala's shooting, her classmates and girls across Pakistan who live with heightened fear that nowhere is safe and that society cannot protect them. We must send a clear message to girls by implementing properly functioning legal systems and gender-sensitive laws that deter violations against them as children and protect their girlhood in a world that sees them as women.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of children in these cases.

This blog is part of a series called "Malala's Impact," which highlights the need for global education. The series is launched in partnership with the UN's Global Day of Action for Malalacampaign on November 10.