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A Loud Message from Girls for Malala -- and the World

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Girls at a school in Jacmel, Haiti
Photo: Plan International/Leanne Nicolle

Over the past nine months, I learned first hand the truth of one well-worn cliché -- a picture really is worth a thousand words. In this case, it's a select group of photos of young girls from around the world that forcefully convey their struggles for basic human rights. These vivid photos tell the girls' stories so much better than even their own words that accompany them. The pictures are the core of a children's book that Plan is publishing on March 8 to mark International Women's Day. That book is aptly titled Every Day is Malala Day.

Together my colleagues and I spent hours laying out, re-arranging and then choosing the finalists from among 300 intimate pictures from Plan's extensive photo library for this book. These photos were taken by staff and volunteers who live and work in the 69 countries where Plan delivers its programs and projects -- and who meet, every day, children and families who live in poor or challenging circumstances and yet still strive to claim a better future for themselves. In the end, we narrowed the list to 30 photos that best expressed the book's mission: girls asserting that nothing, not bullets, nor other harmful practices against girls like early and forced marriage, bullying, and gender exclusion, will stop them from demanding what is rightfully theirs - especially the right to go to school.

These photos tell diverse stories. We see a forlorn child pulling a cart with her belongings on a Manila street and a girl sitting alone on a classroom bench in Myanmar. But we also witness a Kenyan girl, microphone in hand, telling a crowd of young people that, "We must shout for change." We see smiling children from Nepal, Uganda, and elsewhere raising their hands in salutes to Malala and, of course, we see Malala, herself, the now 16-year-old activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt two years ago for daring to speak out about every girl's right to an education.

Even now, after living with this project for so long, I am moved every time I pick up the book. It is a powerful reminder of why we do what we do, especially organizations like Plan that focus on children. When it comes to girls, we know that education can turn them into empowered women who will assert their rights, and not just on International Women's Day.

When Malala was shot, I feared that the world's attention would be focused solely on her fate at the exclusion of countless other anonymous girls around the world who that same day were also suffering, and continue to suffer, from violence. Girls whose names we'll never know or hear about through news headlines. But Malala, herself, and others have made sure that we are still made aware of these girls.

Dedicated to the 65 million girls around the world who should be in classrooms, but aren't, Every Day is Malala Day provides a voice for some of those girls who are discriminated against simply because of their gender. Their words commend Malala's bravery and leadership, but we also see and hear their optimism, energy, and determination.

It is fitting that we are launching this book on International Women's Day. For more than 100 years, the world has annually marked this important occasion, but its annual themes -- this year's theme being "equality for women is progress for all" -- rarely reflect the unique and distinct plight of young girls who are themselves on their way to becoming women.

Originally, International Women's Day took up such basic causes as working conditions, better wages, and women's right to vote. Progress has been made. But 100 years on, there are still harmful, and often fatal, practices and norms impacting women, and particularly girls, in the world. Along with being denied the right to an education from elementary through secondary school, too many girls receive inadequate health care, are forced into dangerous labour, and experience gender-based violence. They are often compelled to marry someone not of their choosing, when they are far too young.

So in thinking about this book in light of International Women's Day, I imagine and hope several things. I imagine adults, particularly mothers, sitting with their sons and daughters - here in Canada or in other parts of the world -- reading it together. I hope it inspires more girls to approach womanhood with the courage, determination, and confidence to insist on their fundamental human rights.

I hope people are reminded that ending gender inequality, stopping violence against females of all ages, and guaranteeing girls' educational opportunities continue to be universal struggles.

Finally, I hope it will prompt young people and adults, men and women, to talk more about the challenges girls face today and about what we all can do to accelerate efforts to confront these remaining challenges - and end them.