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Column: Brave men, women who dare in face of danger

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As the year draws to a close, I want to pay tribute to a few brave men and women who have been fighting in 2012 for dignity, justice and peace in some of the world’s most troubled countries.

My list is limited by space considerations. So I’ve chosen to focus on people I’ve been privileged to meet or whom I’ve learned about from contacts in their countries. What distinguishes them is that each has chosen to struggle, at great risk, for values that most of us take for granted — though their odds of success are small.

I’ll start with someone you probably have heard of, Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education. I never met Malala, who is still recovering from her wounds in England. I did talk with her impressive, reform-minded father when I visited Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2009.

Just last week, according to British press reports, Malala called officials in Pakistan to urge them to reverse a decision to rename a college in her honor, in her hometown of Mingora. The reason? The girls at the college feared it would become a target for attack if it bore her name.

I also want to pay tribute to the nine female Pakistani vaccination workers (one only 17) who were murdered by extremists last week. Female health volunteers are on the front line of Pakistan’s war on polio. (It is one of three countries where the disease still threatens — the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria.) Due to conservative tribal customs, only women can enter houses to give vaccines to children.

Imagine the guts it takes to do this work, which has been temporarily halted. Clerics across Pakistan have condemned the murders, but these women — and the children whose health they protected — are still under threat.

If these cases touch you, stop for a moment to consider what awaits thousands of courageous Afghan women and girls if (when?) we exit their country in a careless fashion. The Taliban is already sending out warning signals. This month, Najia Siddiqi, acting head of women’s affairs in Laghman province, was shot to death in broad daylight; her predecessor was killed by a bomb under her car.

And then there is Syria, where so many nonviolent activists have paid with their lives for their dreams of a peaceful revolution. At least 69 of the dead are media activists or journalists, who record the carnage inflicted by government forces and planes on civilians, and then send reports and footage out of the country.

I could cite so many other acts of courage in 2012, by women activists in Egypt, rule-of-law crusaders in China, etc. But all these activists share a common characteristic: They refuse to stop fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds, because they know that we never can predict when history will deliver surprises.

In some cases, U.S. officials can help (by not abandoning Afghan women or by smarter policy on Syria), and concerned U.S. citizens should pressure them to do so. In other cases, we can bring their struggle to the world’s attention, support human-rights organizations that defend them — and keep these men and women of courage in our prayers.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers can reach her at

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