It was one of the most ruthless attacks of our time: three Pakistani schoolgirls were on their way home when the Taliban shot them.Their crime? Pursuit of an education. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and two other young women sustained injuries to their arms. “We are all Malala,” roared the world. Protestors marched and lit candlelight vigils. Malala was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and became an iconic symbol for young women’s educational struggles.
We went about our self-congratulatory ways, assuming we had done something tangible to help. But we forgot the two others injured in the shooting, who are just as deserving of an education and no less heroic. One of them, Shazia Ramzan, plans to move with her family to the Punjab Province of Pakistan to escape the more volatile region of Swat. The other, Kainat Riaz, is wedged in no man’s land, with few options available to her given the economic stratum of her family. In November 2012, I visited Kainat at her house in Swat Valley.
The road to her village is edged by the Swat River, which lazily laps against majestic, ivory-crested mountains. Not long ago, the Taliban publicly hung men in the main square of Mingora, just a few miles from this epic terrain.
When I arrived at Kainat’s modest house I was greeted by Pakistani Army soldiers, who stood guard outside as a precaution against Taliban attacks. A velvety neon pink pencil bag sat on Kainat’s nightstand. She had carried it the day of the shooting. It was one of her most prized possessions, evidence of her zest for education.
She showed me the scarf she was wearing on the fateful day of the shooting. Her burgundy bloodstains were rusty smudges, now deeply ensconced into the fabric. “I sat across from Malala in the school van,” she began. “Suddenly, a man appeared. I fell over and cried in agony. I felt my shoulder getting more and more wet. I was worried about my friends.” Kainat had been shot in her upper right arm and was rushed to the hospital, where she necessitated treatment for several days.
Due to complications, her home recovery lasted several months. To this day, she endures severe nerve pain and still does not have full function of her hand.
“I want go to school even if the Taliban comes for me again. I will never give up,” Kainat said. It was a gentle resolve, the kind of fortitude that cannot be taught, only earned. When I told her I was a doctor, she beamed. “I want to be a doctor too, so I can help people.”
When our time together ended, I felt the fuzz of the furry pink pencil bag in my hand as Kainat’s hand blanketed mine. “This is the mark of our friendship. So many journalists and politicians visit and go home, but you will never forget me, right?”
Since the shooting, neighbors have repeatedly told Kainat to stop going to school. Some have even accused her of inviting the Taliban’s wrath onto the community. When I asked her why she kept the shawl from the shooting, she responded: “It is the only emblem of my life, with the stain of my blood, my struggle.”
Weeks later, I woke to the shrill jingle of my mobile phone. Kainat was scrambling for breath and anxious. There had been an explosion at the house next door to hers. “Maybe it was a natural gas explosion, but maybe it was the Taliban. They blame me. I wake up with nightmares. The neighbors all tell me to leave.” Her voice splintered, “We have no money to escape. I am scared for my life.”
Despite her valiant efforts, Kainat has only been able to attend school twice since last December. All modes of transportation — buses, taxis, and private cars — refuse to drive her to school. She studies from home now. The Pakistani Army has cautioned the family that their safety cannot be guaranteed outside their home, so they remain under house arrest after dark. Kainat has not left her home in over three weeks.
There is no physical therapy available for her wound recovery, nor is there any mental counseling for her PTSD. For this brave 15-year-old girl, there are no visits to friends’ homes, no trips to the market. She cannot even walk outside her home.
Immediately after learning of her perilous situation, I frantically called everyone I knew to find help. In the past several months, I have contacted the U.S. State Department repeatedly on behalf of Kainat. I have spoken with every journalist I know and contacted anyone whom I thought could possibly assist in protecting her life. No one has come forward with concrete advice.
Malala has now settled in England and remains the voice of young women striving for education. Meanwhile, the world has abandoned Kainat, who is a vulnerable, unwavering young woman in a place that, at best, mutes her aspirations and at worst will kill her.
In my quest to find Kainat a fresh start, I discovered how astoundingly wide the chasm between our public indignation and private lassitude is. The indifference is merely masked in political speeches that reduce women’s rights to theatrics. Is our moral memory so fickle that we must wait till Kainat is tethering between consciousnesses, hooked up to a ventilator in some wretched Pakistani hospital before we act to protect her?
According to UNESCO, over 100 million young women in developing countries have never completed primary school. Pakistan has over three million girls out of school and nearly half of rural females have never attended school.
We have an opportunity to re-write history here. If we are complicit in allowing this catastrophe to unfold, we are writing Kainat’s death sentence with our apathy. If all we have to offer as the most powerful country in the world, to the poorest, most endangered young women, who would literally die for a chance at an education, is empty promises and candle light vigils, then we have fallen further than I thought.
Seema Jilani is a physician who worked extensively on medical evacuation flights for critically ill children. She specializes in pediatrics and has done humanitarian aid work in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Bosnia. Reporting for this piece was done during a trip to Pakistan in November 2012.