Exactly one year ago this week, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck while riding home on a school bus. The 15-year-old girl’s “crime” was simply her outspokenness; for more than three years prior to the shooting, Malala spoke out for the rights of all children to become educated, famously saying, “I want every girl, every child, to be educated.” The Taliban considered Malala’s fight for education rights an obscenity, and as she fought for her life in the weeks after the attack, the group promised to kill her if she survived.
Malala was shot in the town of Mingora, which is in Pakistan’s Swat province. The province has been a major focal point in the war against the Taliban. From 2007 to 2009, the Taliban gained control of Swat, closing and destroying girls’ schools, leaving behind a trail of destruction that is hardly imaginable to those of us who have never experienced the horrors of war.
To protest what was happening in Swat – her homeland – Malala began to write about her traumatic experience living under the oppressive regime. Her stories described the tribulations faced by a young girl denied the most basic of rights – the right to an education – and her unwavering determination led her to fight against all odds towards the day when all children would receive an excellent education.
In her blog posts, Malala describes wearing plain clothes, not uniforms, so that no one would know she was attending school, and wrote about how she and other girls “hid our books under our shawls.” In another blog entry, she writes: “Five more schools have been destroyed, one of them was near my house. I am quite surprised, because these schools were closed so why did they also need to be destroyed?” A few weeks later she says, “I am sad watching my uniform, school bag and geometry box” and “hurt” because her brothers could go to school while she could not.
On July 12 this year, less than a year after she was shot by the Taliban, Malala marked her 16th birthday by delivering to the United Nations a set of education demands. The initiative, “A World at School” demands that at the United Nations General Assembly, world leaders agree to fund new teachers, schools and books – and to end child labour, child marriage and child trafficking – so that by December 2015 the world will meet the Millennium Development goal promise that every boy and girl be at school. I urge you to stand with Malala, and support her education fight by signing her petition at www.aworldatschool.org.
There are currently 57 million children who have no access to education. The United Nations has stated, in response to Malala’s demand, that, “Today we stand united with young people Keeran Sivarajah
from nearly one hundred countries in seeking to ensure that no child is barred from attending school. We are convinced that factors like geography, gender, disability, language, wealth, and ethnicity, should not be seen as impediments to this achievement.”
And more than anyone else, the biggest beneficiary of this fight for universal education will be girls. In its report on girls’ education, the Population Council summarises it aptly: “If you want to change the world, invest in an adolescent girl. An adolescent girl stands at the doorway of adulthood. In that moment, much is decided. If she stays in school, remains healthy, and gains real skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family.
But if she follows the path laid down by poverty, she’ll leave school and enter marriage. As a girl mother, an unskilled worker, and an uneducated citizen, she’ll miss out on the opportunity to reach her full human potential. And each individual tragedy, multiplied by millions of girls, will contribute to a much larger downward spiral for her nation.”
Today, only a small fraction of international aid dollars is spent on needs specific to adolescent girls. This is surprising, given that investing in girls seems to be the right thing to do on moral, ethical, and human rights grounds. We would be hard-pressed to find another segment of society globally that faces as much exploitation and injustice.
This reality makes Malala’s fight for education all the more important. That she is the face of this new movement, demanding urgency from global leaders, lends itself to the power of this inspiring narrative.
Last week, together with hundreds of other students, I had the privilege of witnessing Malala accept the 2013 Peter J. Gomes Harvard Humanitarian Award. In her acceptance speech, Malala said, “We demand that world powers not end wars with wars. We demand that instead of guns they send pencils, instead of tanks they send books, instead of soldiers they send teachers.”
Let’s hope – for the sake of future generations – that world leaders listen intently to this 16-year-old girl.
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Keeran Sivarajah is a postgraduate student at Harvard University. He is a co-founder of Teach For Malaysia and an Associate of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: The Guardian