10/17/2012 12:10 EDT | Updated 12/17/2012 05:12 EST

Taliban Shooting Reminds Us of Another Tragedy

It is said history repeats itself. True or not, history can present some powerful symmetries. Last week's horrific assault on Malala Yousafzai, a teenage heroine who stood up to the Taliban in Pakistan, hit us with a powerful déjà vu of Iqbal Masih, the boy from Pakistan who first inspired our awakening to social justice issues.

It's a story we've told many times; how leafing through the newspaper one day, searching for the comics, Craig stumbled upon the report of Iqbal's violent death. We learned about this 12-year-old -- a boy Craig's age -- who had been sold into slavery at the age of four and chained to a loom in a carpet factory. With mounting fascination we read how he escaped to become a global crusader against child labour.

One of the most powerful images we have ever seen is a grainy video of Iqbal speaking at a school near Boston, Massachusetts. He holds a pencil in one hand and a carpet tool in the other, and emphatically declares that all children should go to school, and none should be made to labour.

We can still taste the rage and the helplessness that gripped us as the article laid out the brutal details of Iqbal's death at the hands of a shotgun-wielding assassin. It was intolerable to us that such a killing should happen in our world, and that feeling drives us to this day.

Fast forward 17 years to last week. We were visiting the Philips Academy in Andover, a town located -- once again -- near Boston. After a speech to the whole school we had a smaller sit-down session with some students. What happened next floored us.

The most pressing issue for the students that day was the attempted murder of Malala. People often don't expect young teens to follow breaking global events, yet every high school student in that room knew about Malala and the attack that had taken place on the other side of the world just the day before.

If you haven't been following the news as closely as the Andover students, Malala is a 14-year-old girl from Pakistan's Swat Valley, a region on the border with Afghanistan where the misogynistic Taliban have a strong presence.

Malala has been a vocal champion for the right of girls to be educated. When violence erupted between the Taliban and Pakistan government forces in 2009, Malala blogged for the BBC, documenting the burning of girls' schools. In 2011, Malala was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. When she did not win, the Government of Pakistan presented her with the first ever Pakistan National Peace Prize.

Last Tuesday, just two days before the International Day of the Girl, as Malala and her schoolmates sat on a bus waiting to leave school, a Taliban gunman boarded the bus, demanded to know which girl was Malala, and shot her in the head. As we write this, she is clinging to life in a military hospital.

Among the students of Phillips Academy we could see in their eyes and hear in their voices the same rage and helplessness, the same fervent desire to do something, that Iqbal's story had fired in us all those years before. Just like us, they wanted to know how this could happen to a child their own age. They wanted to know what they could do to make sure it never happens again.

They're not the only ones. We've been inundated by messages from people about the attack on Malala, like the woman who who emailed us early in the morning to express her shock at the attack, and her belief, "this outrage is a tipping point. Where citizens around the world will say "Enough" and act."

Seventeen years ago, the fledgling Free The Children took the outrage over Iqbal's murder and instead of letting it fester or stagnate, we channelled it, turning it into a force for change. If Malala's story has you seething, don't just shake an angry fist in the air. We may not be in a position to put our lives on the line like Iqbal or Malala, but that doesn't mean we're helpless.

You can volunteer your time, or at the very least donate, to organizations like Amnesty International, PEN and Human Rights Watch -- global organizations that defend the defenders of rights. Organizations such as Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) work to bring rights and education to girls struggling against Taliban aggression in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Contact your Member of Parliament and keep the pressure on our government to ensure Canada continues to fulfill its promises to support rights and education for the girls of Afghanistan.

We've heard it said that when Iqbal Masih died, one thousand Iqbals were born. We hope Malala recovers swiftly, and in the wake of this brutal attack a new generation arises behind her.

Photo gallery
Young Pakistani Activist Attacked
See Gallery

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger