IN the week in which America opened the door for negotiations with the Taliban, three bloody massacres of school children — shot down simply because they wanted to go to school — raise grave questions about what kind of peace the Taliban offer.

Within days of the initiative for talks, the Taliban shot to death nine foreign tourists encamped on the peak of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, saying the murders were in retaliation for a drone attack that killed one of their leaders. But what kind of justification can possibly be offered for the firebombing of a college bus carrying 40 girls from their Quetta campus in Pakistan? Fourteen defenceless girls died in the bombing; eight more people died when the terrorists ambushed the hospital.

We are confronted by a savage war waged by Islamic extremists against young people seeking education. In the wake of the outrage in Pakistan, two appalling massacres that killed 16 students were perpetrated in Nigeria by the country's leading terrorist group, Boko Haram, whose name literally means, “Western education is sin.”

It all underscores what is crucially missing from the seemingly good news that the Taliban, ensconced in its nice new headquarters in Doha, Qatar, has made two pledges for peace.

One: to end the war peacefully, and a second to stop using Afghanistan as a base for terror strikes against other countries, as it did in 9/11.

But a peace deal will not bring violence to an end without a credible pledge to respect elementary human rights. Since last October, when a Taliban terrorist shot down 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai because she had stood up for the right of girls to go to school, there has been a clear pattern in the targeting of victims by Islamic extremists. The five who lost their lives in Monday's killing in the Jajeri ward of Nigeria's Maiduguri metropolis were students gunned down in the main school hall just a few minutes after they had started their annual exams.

This episode — and the Sunday killings at another Nigerian school — resemble earlier attacks in Pakistan. There, only a few weeks ago, bombs were thrown into the playground of an all-girls school just as a Saturday morning open-air prize giving ceremony began. The head teacher and three pupils died.

Altogether 1,000 Pakistan and Afghanistan schools have been bombed, burnt down or simply closed through intimidation in the last three years. And despite last October's worldwide reaction against the shooting of Malala, we have seen an escalation of the threats to — and the shooting and maiming of — boys and girls because they dare to go to school.

The Taliban may have embraced TV, the Internet and new technology, but they have yet to embrace human rights and continue to prevent girls' education. Indeed, until the destruction of schools — and the killing of girl leaders — is brought to an end, any Taliban return to power in Afghanistan may herald a backward step for girls' and women's rights.

Fortunately, girls and boys are no longer prepared to be cowed or intimidated into subjugation. Now they fight back. In an immediate, defiant response to the week's atrocities Malala, still recovering from life threatening injuries to her head and neck, has launched a petition to be presented to the Secretary General of the UN. On petitioners call on world leaders to fund the four million classrooms and two million teachers required to ensure every boy and girl has a school they can go to.In Pakistan two million people — including one million school-age girls and boys — have signed petitions demanding the right of education for children like Malala. In Nepal the Common Forum for Kalmal Hari Freedom fights child trafficking and seeks to move children from exploitation into education.

In Bangladesh, activists known as “wedding busters” have created 19 child marriage-free zones to protect girls from forced marriages at ages as young as 10.

And in India, the organisations Bachpan Bachao Andolan and the Global March Against Child Labour rescue young girls and boys from exploitative child labour and help them back into school.

Like the brave schoolteachers who defiantly keep girls' schools open in Afghanistan, each of these groups is standing up to extremists hell-bent on denying girls education.

On Malala Day July 12th, we will not only remember and commemorate the girls and boys who have died in tragedies like the one that occurred last week, but also highlight the courageous children like Malala who have withstood militant pressure to take girls' education back to the dark ages.

But the girls and boys who are becoming more assertive in demanding their right to education cannot succeed without far bolder worldwide support to counter terrorist extremism.

First, the UN must debate the growing intimidation and brutalisation of children who are being thrust into the front line of a terrorist war by militants who want to stop all education. The right to go to school in safety must be upheld by all international organisations — and the message sent out that the UN regards an attack on a child at school as seriously as it regards other murderous assaults in churches and in hospitals.

And in Afghanistan the US must not broker a deal that fails to protect the rights of women and minorities. Negotiators must be clear from the start that any settlement cannot be allowed to wipe out the achievement of getting four million girls to school for the first time. Girls' rights cannot be written off as a bargaining chip to be traded in for a pretence of peace. Quite simply, the price of agreement cannot be girls finding school doors shut in their faces.

Second, we must show a determination that education will continue despite terrorist assaults and threats. Just as in fragile areas, where healthcare is provided by the Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontieres, so, too, should education be provided by delivery agencies even if the area is less than secure. This is essential for the world's conflict zones and fragile states where historically a breakdown in law and order has meant the curtailment of schooling. A new initiative, Education Without Borders, should be developed to provide a continuation of education — from Somalia to Syria.

But, third, when setting the next Millennium Development Goals, we must stand up to those who do not see schooling for children as any kind of priority. Children are the most marginalised group in our societies. They deserve international support.

At the UN's Malala Day events, a report will be presented showing that if you are a girl in a developing country, your chances of being denied schooling are one in five (20 per cent).

If you live in a rural area this probability rises to 23 per cent. And if you're poor, it is even higher, at 31 per cent.

Past policies have failed to reach the street child, the child labourer, the girl bride, the trafficked child, the isolated boy and girl in remote rural areas. This includes the 15 million children who are working full time, the 10 million child brides who are taken out of school into forced marriages against their will, and the millions more who are discriminated against and prevented form going to school simply because, like Malala Yousafzai, they are girls.

Here then, in any rewriting of the Millennium Development Goals, is a priority for the future of these millions of the marginalised — and our own.

( Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010. He is currently an adviser to the World Economic Forum.

Mr Brown is Reuters Columnist — but his opinions are his own.



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