Even as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl today, two days ago we remembered the anniversary of the Taliban's attack against Malala Yousafzai. Malala, a then 15-year-old Pakistani student who campaigned for greater educational opportunities for girls, miraculously survived and just a year later brings audiences to tears with her story of strength, defiance and heart.
She is an inspiration to people of all ages, nationalities, religions and sexes. She inspires me, a 30-something Turkish-American Christian man, in ways that few do. More importantly, she shows that perhaps girls and young women are the biggest untapped resource in the world.
Malala tells her story in her new memoir, I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban and is touring the world accepting awards for her unimaginable courage and determination to defy those who oppose a girl's right to education.
Unfortunately, her native Pakistan, and in particular her beloved SWAT valley (which she tells Jon Stewart is "like heaven"), has steadily deteriorated over the past decade into a haven for extremists, like the very ones who attacked her, who distort Islam and severely curtail the rights of women and girls. Yet Malala's ability to transform from victim to global advocate and inspirational leader belies what many (not just the Taliban) choose to believe about young women. They are meant to stay at home. To care for the family. To stay out of politics. To not make a difference.
Luckily for us, a growing number of young women are refusing to be limited to this mold; and in doing so they may hold the keys to peace.
It is estimated that about half of all peace negotiations fail. I have trouble believing this isn't partly because women--who often understand community dynamics better and are disproportionately affected by conflict--are all but absent from a table overwhelmingly dominated by men.
So what if more young women were mentored from a young age to play pivotal roles in future peacebuilding processes? Young women like Bayan Bahloul who, after participating in the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women's program this summer, is starting an initiative in her native Syria to help reintegrate child soldiers back into society. Or Laya Farooq, a 20-year-old Iraqi from Baghdad determined to empower Kurdish girls to create a more equal and just Kurdistan. Or Becca Weinstein, a young woman in Washington, D.C. on a quest to bring together Palestinian and Israeli preschoolers as a way to power social change.
Young women like these are the pathways to a future of sustainable and attainable peace. Malala's crusade for universal education and Bayan, Laya and Becca's passions signify an encouraging start to what I can only hope becomes a global trend. But what if there were increasing numbers of young women trained, mentored and sent back to their communities to lead... to eventually have the opportunity to negotiate peace in their homeland? Through groups like the Andi Leadership Institute and others like it, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make this happen.
Ultimately, if we (especially men) truly want a chance at peace in our time, it's time to channel Malala's bravery. It's time to realize that by not including half the population we are only getting half the results. It's time to empower the young women of the world to take a seat at the table they so richly deserve.
It's time to stand up for girls.