08/20/2014 11:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Adolescent Girls Around The World Can Teach Us

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

In his TED Talk, Malala Yousafzai's father Ziauddin says that the story of a woman is often "a story of injustice, inequality, violence and exploitation".

In Pakistan, at age ten, I witnessed the imposition of so-called Islamic laws for political ends, which effectively made women second class citizens and resulted in state sanctioned abuse of women and girls. These events had a lasting effect on my life. A decade later, I wrote the first ever study on domestic violence in Pakistan. I joined the UN to see how to best make use of international human rights law to protect women's rights and since 2011; I have been Global Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization which fights for the rights of women and girls.

Just as I was a girl when I was compelled to do something to help safeguard women's rights in my country, I realized that many (and the most devastating) violations of rights of women -- whether it be child marriage, incest, rape, female genital mutilation or sex trafficking -- happen to girls in their adolescence and such violations have a lasting and often lifelong impact. On the other hand, girls enabled to grow up to reach their full potential have the power to change the world for the better. Investing in girls and building their protective assets is one of the best investments we can make for a safer, more sustainable and peaceful world.

Through our Adolescent Girls' Legal Defense Fund, we aim to ensure that legal systems around the world are responsive to girls to ensure realization of rights and access to justice. A well-functioning legal system that protects girls will deter those who would violate them. We bring cases of violations of girls' rights to courts with the purpose of ensuring that such violations are curtailed in the future, through changes in law or better implementation of laws. At the same time, we aim to ensure that girls' voices are heard in creating solutions to issues that they face.

It is an honor to be able to work with girls around the world who are transforming the societies they live in - many of them adolescents like Malala. Mariam was fifteen when she brought an unprecedented case of incest to court in Pakistan and won. Mary was just thirteen when she was raped by her school teacher but had the courage to take on the entire Zambian government, which failed to take action against her teacher. Wafa was only eleven when she was married to an adult but fought steadfastly to get a divorce from her adult husband in Yemen, where there are still no laws against child marriage. Makeda was just thirteen when she was raped, abducted and forced into marriage and has taken the Ethiopian government to court for failing to protect her by freeing her rapist of all charges.

The Pakistan government has yet to bring Malala's attackers to justice, but Malala has had the courage and fortitude to let the whole world know about her case - characteristics which her father says are due to the fact that "he did not clip her wings". However, there are thousands of Malalas who have yet to be heard. In 2008, when the Taliban were blowing up girls schools in Swat Valley, Pakistan and the government failed to take any action to ensure that girls safety and access to education, we tried to bring a class action law suit on behalf of such girls, but prosecutors and local lawyers lived in fear of the Taliban and would not take on such a case. Malala has helped to show the world that girls do not need to wait to be protected; rather they themselves can be a force for change. We must listen to, learn from and enable these girls to be the agents of change that they need to be if we are to transform the world.

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