A Letter to My Son on International Day of the Girl

What most touched me yesterday, however, was Malala's insistence that boys, our sons and brothers, are her partners in creating an equal world.
10/11/2013 05:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

At Young Women's Leadership Network's annual breakfast in New York yesterday, I sat humbled and hopeful as I listened to Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai share her vision for every child receiving an equal education. And I shared her dream that she will be prime minister of Pakistan in the future.

Malala has transformed an attempted assassination at age 14 into a global spotlight on how equal education for girls is still a very real human rights crisis despite pockets of progress (such as U.S. girls' record rates of going to college, thanks to girls education trailblazers like YWLN -- a partner of my organization, The Respect Institute).

What most touched me yesterday, however, was Malala's insistence that boys, our sons and brothers, are her partners in creating an equal world. And then what bought me to tears was her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator and hero among us as well, for his solidarity with his daughter from the start: She deserved her education.

Though a large part of my organization's focus is empowering vulnerable girls through self-respecting building tools, today on International Day of the Girl Child I found my thoughts turning to my son, Tru. Though he is only 3 years old, I was fantasizing about the kind of school he could attend when he was Malala's age. A school that would end boys', especially those of color, pipeline to prison. A school that would allow children to start their day by doing yoga or climbing tress and building structures while learning poems, physics and math. But mostly, a school that would teach him to be a compassionate leader in his home and world who advocated for equal rights for all people.

Until I build this school -- which if you know me, will happen! -- I thought I'd write him a letter on this special day about his role, and all boys' roles, in making respect for all the status quo. Here it goes:

Dear son,

You may marinate in a world that says: Respect is earned through conquering, violence, dominance and winning. It is not. In fact, respect is not earned at all. Look up admiration and trust in the dictionary instead. Respect is a way of being. It's behaving like I matter. You matter. And self-respect means knowing that you are a unique contributor to the whole. So is everyone else.

Today is the International Day of Girl and I want you to think for a moment about the girls and women in your life, including mama. We are not safe or equal in many of our homes, workplaces and communities. Many women and girls don't have a voice or choice in their lives. Some are treated like caged animals or garbage or nothing at all. This is wrong. It diminishes us all.

I have one expectation of you in life. Be a force for good. Use your talents and power to stand with and for girls to help ensure their health, safety, independence and freedom for all. Do this for boys, too. It's a tall order, but it's my only one! Here's what it looks like (and watch your dad for demos):

1. You truly believe girls are your equals -- from their abilities to their rights and minds. Don't buy into stereotypes like girls love pink and baby dolls or they can't do a pull up or algebra. Right now, the same is true for you.

2. If you see anyone harming a girl, don't be a bystander. Call for help if you're both at risk, but go against the pack. It will take courage. Do it. You will be unpopular with some and suffer consequences in some cases. But you will be able to live with yourself. (Do this for boys, too).

3. Some day, you might want to get romantic with someone. I'll be blunt: Sex without self-awareness, trust, respect, honesty, consent, sobriety, safety and commitment isn't good. Never pressure anyone to give into your sexual desires -- and don't pressure yourself for any reason. Honorable people don't violate boundaries (theirs or their partner's) just to "get" sex.

4. Vote politically and economically with your imaginary vagina. Ask yourself: Do women and girls stand to be hurt by this person, product or policy? If the answer is yes, vote no.

5. Where there is a wall standing in the way of a female's freedom, knock it down with your innovations, leadership, participation and wallet.

Finally, when I am very old, come visit me and tell me about the old world where this guidance was once necessary but not anymore. Tell me about Malala finally winning the Nobel Peace Prize -- the last one ever given, because we are all finally free and safe. Tell me the kids are all right.