Updated: Oct. 10, 2012 at 4:00 a.m. EST
A 14-year-old activist and blogger was shot in the head on her way back from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Tuesday, the latest in a troubling string of incidents involving children in Pakistan. Malala Yousafzai was injured along with two travel companions when Taliban assailants opened fire on their vehicle in the town of Mingora. On Wednesday, Yousafzai, who started blogging about the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education in Swat when she was 11, had undergone successful surgery in a hospital in Peshawar to remove a bullet from her head.
The attack on Yousafzai made news in no small part because the Pakistani government awarded the precocious teenager a National Peace Award in December for her bravery in exposing the difficulties of living in the oppressive shadow of the Taliban. She has spoken publicly about children’s rights in Swat, and had been nominated for an international children’s peace prize. “The people of Swat are not terrorists,” she told al-Jazeera in a 2010 interview, during a period when the Taliban was in retreat. “If this new generation is not given pens, they will be given guns by terrorists.”
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The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) quickly claimed responsibility for the attack against Yousafzai, and said that the incident should serve as a warning to other children who participate in “secular-minded” activities. “She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her idol,” a TTP spokesman told the Express Tribune, a daily in Pakistan.
The assault is yet another disturbing example of children, particularly young girls, being targeted in an increasingly tense atmosphere in conservative regions of Pakistan. The country’s Supreme Court is currently investigating a case in which a tribal council in Balochistan allegedly ordered the barter of 13 girls for marriage as a settlement in a blood feud between two tribes. The tradition of giving away women for marriage in order to settle disputes, called vani, has been in practice for centuries, but was made illegal under a 2011 law and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of roughly $5,200. In August, a 14-year-old Christian girl was arrested in an Islamabad slum for blasphemy after tearing out and burning pages of the Koran. A court has since found there was no evidence that she was guilty, but her accuser, a local imam, may be charged with tampering evidence in her case.
The attempt on Yousafzai’s life was condemned by both Pakistan’s prime minister and president, as well as the U.S. state department. Support for the girl has poured in over social media and from members of the international human rights community. “This attack highlights the extremely dangerous climate human rights activists face in north-western Pakistan, where particularly female activists live under constant threats from the Taliban and other militant groups,” Mustafa Qadri, a researcher for Amnesty International in Pakistan, said in a statement. According to Amnesty International, two other activists working on women’s education have been killed by militants in the region in the past year. “The Pakistani authorities must demonstrate by their actions that they are committed to giving women and girls the same opportunities as men and boys despite threats,” said Qadri.
Yousafzai’s blog entries for BBC’s Urdu site offered a rare window into the lives of an 11-year-old and her friends in one of the most dangerous and remote places in Pakistan. Under the pen name Gul Makai, Yousafzai wrote about watching the violence in Swat escalate while her personal freedoms shrank. On Jan. 14, 2009, the day before a Taliban edict went into effect shuttering her school, Yousafzai wrote: “Since today was the last day of our school, we decided to play in the playground a bit longer. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen, but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.”