Malala's Lesson to Us All

24/10/2012 16:50 BST | Updated 24/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Malala Yousufzai has campaigned from the age of 11 for something our children never think twice about. The right for girls in Pakistan's Swat Valley to go to a school near them, without fearing for their safety and without their virtue being called into question. And for that she was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban.

Thankfully, the news is promising and it seems that following an operation to remove the bullet lodged in her brain, Malala is now making good progress at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.

Following this act of immense cowardice by the Taliban - an attempted assassination of a child activist - condemnation has echoed around the world. Obama called the shooting, "reprehensible, disgusting, tragic", Ban Ki-moon called it "a heinous and cowardly act", while William Hague described Malala as as "inspirational example for young people". And we can be proud that we followed up our warm words with practical support and that some of our best medical staff will be doing everything they can to help Malala recover.

But this incident shines an uncomfortably bright light on one of the darkest realities of our foreign policy today. In far too many countries, many of them our allies, women and girls aren't even second class citizens, they are prisoners of war. I honestly can't think of another way to describe someone who is not allowed an education, who cannot choose what to wear or when to go out, where to go or with whom, who cannot drive a car or choose who to talk to or what they can say to them, who cannot seek confidential medical treatment (or sometimes any medical treatment), and whose husbands, brothers or really any men are permitted, certainly by culture and sometimes by law, to beat and rape them. In different degrees, we are talking about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), about Libya, about Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Nepal, Afghanistan ... I could go on but I want you to keep reading, not to give up in despair.

On the surface there's good reason to despair - the problems seem so entrenched, historical and widespread. What hope is there for change and even if change were possible what could we, the UK, possibly do to help anyway?

The hope lies in the very fact that in all of these countries, without exception, there are other girls and women like Malala, who are not simply victims, they are not even primarily victims, instead they are campaigners and activists calling for the right to go to school, get medical help, not to be beaten or raped and to be able to get medical assistance and justice if they are. And for this courage, like Malala, they and their families often face death threats, physical abuse and being stigmatised within their communities. But in the face of apparently overwhelming odds change is happening. The DRC has recently had landmark rape convictions of senior military commanders, women across the Middle East and North Africa stood alongside men calling for democracy, freedom, equality and a say in their future, and we all know the impact of Aung San Suu Kyi's stand against the Burmese military junta.

These girls and women are the single greatest resource for change in their countries and if we want our foreign affairs and international development policy to genuinely put women at its heart (as we are repeatedly assured), then this is who we should be supporting, protecting and promoting.

That is why this week I am chairing an event in parliament hosted by Amnesty International, GAPS, Peace Brigades and Womankind Worldwide, which will bring together women human rights defenders from Colombia, Iran, Kenya, Mexico and Nepal with UK Government officials, parliamentarians and legal experts. I hope we will be able to find new ways for all governments, including the UK, to offer greater support and protection for the vital and courageous work of human rights defenders like Malala Yousufzai.