They’re denied an education, kidnapped, gang-raped and sold in the market. They’re forced to cart water and they’re married off early to old men.
Then one extraordinary girl, Malala Yousafzai, escaped the fate of others and soared to freedom, voicing the pain and terror of adolescent girls across large parts of the world.
Malala, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, has become a symbol of hope in her homeland, Pakistan, where girls are sometimes slain by their families in “honor killings” if they dare to marry for love, or are kept out of school in deeply conservative communities.
The award comes as girls are under attack by extremists in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and are routinely abused in nations including India, Somalia and South Africa.
In Nigeria, hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by the violent Islamist militia Boko Haram are still in captivity, including nearly 219 seized in April, whose fate was highlighted in the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign this year.
In Iraq, the militant group Islamic State has kidnapped hundreds of girls of the minority Yazidi sect in recent months, who are raped and sold like cattle or given to commanders as gifts, activists say.
In India, where horrific cases of sexual abuse of girls and young women surface regularly, two girls were raped and killed in a village in Uttar Pradesh state in May. Their bodies were found hanging in a mango tree. They had gone outside their home at night to relieve themselves in a field because of a lack of bathrooms.
“This award is for all the children who are voiceless, whose voices need to be heard,” Malala, 17, said after she became the youngest recipient in history of a prize that is infrequently awarded to women.
Spotlighting the struggles of boys as well as girls, the Nobel committee announced in Oslo that the award was also being given to Satyarthi, 60, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save the Childhood Movement, which has campaigned to free thousands of children from forced labor and human trafficking.
Both Malala and Satyarthi have made exceptional sacrifices, facing the very real possibility of death for their work as advocates for children.
The decision was packed with symbolism: a shared award for a Pakistani and an Indian, each struggling for children’s rights in neighboring rival nuclear nations, whose disputed borders in Kashmir have been racked by intense shelling in recent days. The difference in the two recipients’ ages illustrated that the struggle for fundamental human rights is everyone’s concern.
The committee announced that the pair would receive the award “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” It said it “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
Malala, a high school student, was at school in Birmingham, England, when the prize was announced and made the world wait until after school for her comments.
“This is not the end.... I want to see every child going to school and getting an education,” she said.
The daughter of a school administrator in the town of Mingora, she had bristled against a Taliban rule against education for girls when she was as young as 11. Despairing at the thought of a life stuck at home, she wrote a blog, campaigning for girls’ education, and appeared on TV and in an international documentary.
In October 2012, she was aboard a school bus in the Swat Valley, in northwestern Pakistan, when Taliban gunmen asked for her by name and opened fire. A bullet to the head nearly killed her.
Malala has impressed television audiences with her soft-spoken philosophy of forgiveness and peace, and with the steely strength behind it.
Her comments to the United Nations last year voiced her hope for something better for girls, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.
“I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same,” she said.
Shahidullah Jan, a Peshawar-based activist of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, said Friday that Malala’s campaign had helped improve girls’ access to education in Pakistan but had done little to change entrenched practices such as early marriage and honor killings in deeply conservative regions like the Swat Valley.
“It will take time for the girls inspired by Malala to become educated and start speaking for their rights. It will take time to bring change, but she at least has started the process,” Jan said.
Liesl Gerntholtz, Human Rights Watch director for women’s rights, said the fact that Malala was awarded the prize was indicative of growing global awareness of abuses against girls.
She said it was important to be aware that boys were vulnerable to violence, forced labor and other abuses, but added that girls were more vulnerable.
“The fact that Malala, a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, should win a Nobel Peace Prize is an important indication that the world is recognizing that this is a problem that we need to address,” she said. “Progress is being made. But a lot more needs to be done.”
Terrorism, sexual violence and the threat of abduction are the depressing, everyday reality for many adolescent girls. When conflict surges in deeply unequal societies, as it has in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, girls and women often become plunder of war.
In Iraq last month, a 14-year-old Yazidi girl detailed her experience, in an interview widely published, offering a firsthand account of attacks on Yazidi girls in northern Iraq as they tried to flee the war: She was seized as a concubine by an overweight, much older, bearded Islamic State commander in northern Iraq. He kicked and beat her daily when she resisted his advances, until she managed to escape.
“Twelve-year-old girls, raped. Ten-year-old girls, raped. This girl could be your daughter, she could be your sister, she could be your neighbor,” Yazidi lawmaker Vian Dakhil said in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Some are at prisons here, still in Iraq, and some have been taken to Syria, and some are in Mosul. They are taken to be raped, and they are selling them, $150 for a girl.”
In Nigeria, hundreds of girls have been abducted in recent years, with the numbers surging as Boko Haram launched an aggressive advance, taking control of villages and towns in the northeast.
In the town of Chibok, in eastern Nigeria, 276 girls who were at a school to take final exams were seized in April; 57 escaped in the early days of captivity, but 219 are unaccounted for.
“I’m the one that captured your girls. I’ll sell them in the market, by God. There’s a market for selling people. God has commanded me to sell,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a chilling video soon after the abduction.
In July, Malala met with girls and their families in Nigeria and pressed President Goodluck Jonathan to do more to free those still captive.
In March, a Human Rights Watch report said the rape of women and girls in Somalia had become “normal,” with the large proportion of women displaced by conflict particularly vulnerable. The U.N. reported 800 cases of sexual violence in Mogadishu, the capital, in the first six months of 2013. About a third of Somali rape victims are children, according to the U.N.
“There’s a correlation between countries that have a high level of inequality between men and women and violence against women,” said Gerntholtz. “There are countries like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia where you have conflict-related violence that affects women and girls.
“There are also countries that have very low levels of equality between men and women and you see violence related to women’s subordination, like Saudi Arabia and many parts of the Middle East.”
Key issues, she said, are ensuring that girls are not married or forced to drop out of school to go to work at a young age and are able to finish high school.
But even when countries are not at war, girls are more likely to face violence and rape at school, according to the U.N. Girls’ Education Initiative, making education a terrifying experience for abuse victims.
When a researcher for a study on girls’ education last year asked girls in rural Uganda what their biggest problem was, the response came back, “The biggest problem is these men who disturb us, begging for sex when walking to school,” UNGEI director Nora Fyles said in a blog last year.
She said U.N. reports indicated that “girls at secondary education levels increasingly face sexual violence, including forced marriage, abduction and sexual exploitation, taking advantage of the fact that girls have limited financial and material means.”
Girls from impoverished families are more likely to drop out of school to earn money for the family, with an estimated 90 million girls in harmful child labor, the U.N. says.
Early marriage — with the bride often paid for in cows — cuts girls’ education short in countries such as South Sudan and consigns them to lives of drudgery and often domestic violence. In Malawi, where the legal marriage age is 15, more than 51% of girls are married before 18, according to the U.N. In India, the figure is 47% and in both Nigeria and Afghanistan, it’s 46%. In Chad, the figure is 72%.
For Malala, the life she escaped but which millions of others endure represents a prison.
“I didn’t want my future to be just sitting in a room and be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth to children,” she said in a BBC interview last year. “I didn’t want to see my life in that way.”
Dixon reported from Johannesburg, South Africa. Special correspondents Aoun Abbas Sahi in Islamabad, Pakistan; Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan; Parth M.N. in Mumbai, India; and Christine Mai-Duc in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
For more international news, follow @RobynDixon_LAT on Twitter.