Earlier this week, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize , and the first person from Pakistan to win this award. The announcement that Malala had been chosen for this honour was met with almost universal acclaim around the world, and was rightly seen as an important, symbolic endorsement of her personal struggle and her ongoing efforts to promote education for children in Pakistan and other parts of the world. However, amidst all the congratulatory messages and expressions of goodwill, it is important to remember that despite being feted for her achievements, Malala is unable to return home to Pakistan. More importantly, perhaps, the issues she has attempted to confront, as well as myriad others, continue to blight the lives of children across the country.

When thinking about Malala’s Nobel Prize, it is impossible to not draw parallels with Pakistan’s only other Nobel Laureate, Professor Abdus Salam, who won the award for Physics in 1979. Renowned throughout the world for his pioneering scientific work, Abdus Salam went into voluntary exile from Pakistan to protest against the government’s decision to declare Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the ‘Islamizing’ Zia-ul-Haq regime’s response was desultory at best, with the government refusing to celebrate the achievements of one of Pakistan’s finest minds simply because Prof. Salam happened to be an Ahmadi. The great irony here is that Abdus Salam himself maintained a deep and abiding love for Pakistan, asking to be buried there after his death. Yet to this day the state, obsessed with affirming its legitimacy through the cynical use of Islam aimed at appeasing the most reactionary segments of society, has failed to properly honour Abdus Salam while remaining complicit in the persecution of the Ahmadi community.

In the case of Malala Yousafzai, it is clear that a return to Pakistan would be fraught with danger. The same forces that were responsible for targeting her in October 2012 continue to exist throughout the country, and have repeatedly claimed that, given the opportunity, they would not hesitate to attack her again. The government, unsurprisingly, has chosen to abdicate its responsibility to protect its citizens, openly admitting that it would be unable to protect Malala or, indeed, anyone else from the powerful forces of millinerian religious obscurantism that have increasingly come to dominate public life in Pakistan. For all the encouragement offered to Malala by the country’s politicians and leaders, the sad reality is that there is little they can do, or indeed are willing to do, to effectively counter the threat posed to her, and the rest of Pakistan, by the Taliban and their ilk.

One of the more pernicious aspects of this sad state of affairs is the way in which elements within the media and the political establishment have, over the past few years, attacked Malala. One would have thought that being shot in the head at the age of 14 for the ‘crime’ of championing education for young girls in Swat was sufficient grounds to extend both sympathy and support to Malala, and that this horrific event would have served to galvanize efforts to combat violent extremists who felt no compunction in blowing up schools and murdering children. Instead, Malala and her struggle became a source of considerable polarization, with many criticizing her for portraying a negative image of Pakistan, acting as a stooge for the West, and serving as a means through which to attack Islam. Indeed, in his response to the news of Malala’s Nobel win, Liaqat Baloch of the Jamaat-i-Islami reiterated this reprehensible line of thought when he said that, ‘Malala is a Pakistani student and she is getting a lot of support and patronage abroad… the attack on Malala and then her support in the West creates a lot of suspicion’. This is a narrative that continues to exist, and it follows a script that has been used to delegitimize other, usually female, victims of violence justified in the name of religion and tradition. Mukhtar Mai, for example, who spoke out against the jirga-sanctioned gang rape she was subjected to, was also accused of being a pawn in the hands of the West, and the same was true of the rape victim who set herself ablaze in Muzaffargarh earlier this year. In all of these cases, the paranoia and extremism of Pakistan’s self-appointed custodians of morality combined with patriarchy and misogyny to undermine any attempts to challenge the status quo, and to silence women who dared to speak out against their subjugation and marginalization.

As such, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai should serve as an important reminder of why it is so important to support the causes that she is fighting for, and should also rejuvenate concrete efforts that are being taken in that regard. On a different note, as indicated by the Nobel Committee itself, the Prize should also be used to remind ourselves of our collective responsibility towards protecting the rights of children, and recognizing the struggles they face on a daily basis. In January this year, a 15 year old schoolboy in Hangu named Aitzaz Hasan bravely sacrificed his own life to save his peers from a suicide bomber. In 1995, Iqbal Masih was gunned down in Muridke at the tender age of 12. His only crime was that he had been campaigning against the use of children as bonded labour, having himself escaped that fate after working for years as a debt slave. The bravery and courage of these children, and Malala, shames all of us who continue to tolerate the fact that millions of children in Pakistan lack access to education, proper healthcare and sanitation, and the right to enjoy a childhood free from exploitation and abuse. Failure to speak out against the systems of oppression that perpetuate all of this is nothing more than cowardice.

Finally, it is also important to note that Malala shares her Nobel Prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist who has spent several decades campaigning against child labour and slavery. At a time when India and Pakistan are once again trading bullets and barbs across the border, the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize to an Indian and Pakistani should be taken as an opportunity for both sides to exercise restraint and perhaps even confront the common problems faced by both countries.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.