The old aphorism, "If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish he will eat forever," offers more wisdom about the virtues of education than many of today's political candidates do. Still, it leaves me with one question: What does it mean for women?
In many parts of the world, girls are neither "given the fish" nor taught how to "fish for themselves." Instead of putting on backpacks and heading to school, girls must put on water jugs and head miles away to collect water for their families. Education has become a luxurious meal that many girls never get the chance to taste.
The thousands of education-starved, female minds piqued my interest two years ago when I researched women's education issues for my school's Women's Advocacy Club. While scrolling through the Internet, I came across a New York Times video that depicted the strong-willed desire of an 11-year-old Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, to attend school in her native Swat Valley despite sexist threats from the Taliban. My heart was struck when I saw the girl's youthful face crumple as she told her dad that she wanted to become a doctor. The tears that began to well in her eyes reflected the omnipresent image of the Taliban's threats. She knew that their presence in her country would make her dream an unlikely reality. Still, she did not let the Taliban's decrees to close girl's schools and punish dissenters scare her. She would show her face and speak out against the Taliban's injustice.
Last week I opened the paper, and my eyes darted to the headlines: "Pakistani Activist, 15, Is Shot by Taliban" and "Pakistani girl shot in head by the Taliban." My knuckles turned white as my mind raced straight to Yousafzai. Without reading any further, I knew it was she who the Taliban had attacked. As I read on, my own face crumpled as I grew with rage. In an instant, the Taliban replaced Yousafzai's aspirations to become a doctor with a reality of being an ailing patient.
As Yousafzai beings to recover from her harrowing injuries, the global community must begin to doctor the serious deficits in women's education. The outpouring of international support for Yousafzai is marked with people clamoring for ways to help the girl and her family. The biggest help? Stop giving women fish, and instead begin to teach women how to fish for themselves. The best way to honor Yousafzai is to continue her fight.
Pakistani girls are not alone in struggling against sexist laws or customs that forcibly extinguish their burning desires for an education. Around the world, families and community leaders see women's education as an investment with little returns. Teach a woman to read? Why bother, some think, if her only value is as a mother and housekeeper? Leave the learning for the boys whose opportunities aren't limited by needing to travel with male chaperones and being married off when they are nine.
The only way to shift this devaluation of female education is to reconstruct society. If there are no job opportunities for educated women, a community will not educate their women, and then there will be no job opportunities for educated women. Like a dog chasing its tail, the longer our global community takes a back seat to female education, the more self-perpetuating this downward spiral will become.
Yousafzai has left us no excuse to ignore women's education issues. Even a Taliban's threat is no longer good enough. If you are reading this article, you have had the amazing opportunity of receiving an education. Think back to your first day of kindergarten and imagine where you would be today if your schooling had not even reached that point. While many of us bemoan the mountains of homework we suffer through each night, these molehills are preferable to the monotonous days of chores and cleaning that is the reality for girls denied an education. Liberation is only possible with an education, so let's use our own freedom and schooling to teach all of our women how to fish.