10/26/2012 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Will Malala's Heroism Turn The Tide For Women And Girls?

A hero to millions, Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is now recovering in a British hospital after being gunned down by the Taliban in a vicious attempt to silence her. The 16-year-old's crime? Speaking out about her right to an education at home in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where religious militants had banned girls from attending school.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2012 released by the World Economic Forum this week, Pakistan lands an unforgiving second-to-last in worldwide rankings of gender equality. The global index measures the gender gap in each country by educational attainment, health and survival, economic opportunity and political representation. Pakistan, a country where female literacy hovers at 40 percent, has been working to improve its education system, but violent extremism poses a clear threat to progress in the region. The nation of 176 million also ranks near the bottom of the index in measures of economic participation and women's health.

For girls like Malala, access to education is often the portal to a better life, providing an escape route from the many poverty traps that can daunt young women in the developing world, such as childhood marriage, early pregnancy, increased risk of maternal death, exposure to HIV/AIDS and more. The Global Gender Gap index is able to track and monitor the well-being of women and girls over time. It is also able to look at larger societal issues, like how freely women can participate in economic and political life.

Malala's bravery has put a human face to the struggles and aspirations of young women who live in difficult, dangerous parts of the world where they must face down overwhelming odds every day. As documented by Brookings' Rebecca Winthrop, there is a long history of violence against girls' education:

The sad truth is that Malala's case is not the exception. Violence against girls and women continues to be one of the most prevalent human rights abuses of our time. Around the world, students, teachers and schools are attacked at an alarming rate. This war against education, in which educating girls is often times a motivating factor, gets very little attention or media coverage. But in at least 31 countries, education has been the target of intentional attacks for political, ideological, sectarian, religious, military or other reasons. Last year in Pakistan alone, there were 152 targeted bombings of schools resulting in their complete or partial destruction. Attacks on education, largely motivated by girls' attendance, have continued in neighboring Afghanistan for some time, including last year the 35 schools that were burned, the numerous schools that were forced to close often due to threats and intimidation, and the 66 teachers and other education personnel that were killed, abducted or intimidated.

Malala rose to public stature in a 2009 New York Times documentary by speaking out against this violence and voicing her desire to one day become a doctor. For her bravery, she became a target.

To channel the global outpouring of concern for Malala, Gordon Brown, the UN's Special Envoy for Global Education, has declared November 10th an international day of action to protect girls' rights and invest in the millions of children who are kept out of classrooms by forces of poverty and prejudice. An international movement has sprung up, as people throughout Pakistan and the world stand in solidarity by declaring "I Am Malala." And it's true. For every Malala, there are countless more children like her.

Can Malala's heroic story help to turn the tide for women and girls? It can, if we can all find the bravery in our hearts to continue pushing for the rights of women, the importance of universal education, and an end to the forces of violence and oppression that cloud the life chances of so many in our world.

This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.

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 Global Day of Action for Malala campaign, which takes place on November 10.