Malala’s Message for Girls’ Education

Watching the sixteen year old girl Malala Yousufzai addressing the United Nations, two days ago on television, was a highly emotional experience for me.

It must have been the same for many people around the world who watched her speak.

Only nine months ago we saw her battling for her life – with a bullet on the side of her forehead – after being shot at by ruthless Taliban militants, in the Swat Valley of Pakistan.  She was then, urgently, shifted to Birmingham in UK for medical and surgical assistance where she is currently staying.

What was her crime? She was merely asking for education which rightfully belonged to girls as much as it did for boys. And for her voicing that opinion, she had to take the bullet.

But now, with this powerful speech to the United Nations’ assembly of over 500 young people aged between 12 and 25 years from around the world, I think, Malala grew taller still, making her assailants even smaller.

With her mind without fear, and with her head held high, she spoke with confidence that is very rare for a sixteen year old.

“The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions,” she declared, “but nothing changed in my life, except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

And if the number of times her speech was interrupted by huge applause is any indication of its effectiveness, her speech can be rated among the most effective speeches in the last few years.

Soon after she finished speaking, along with praise, there were also critical remarks and snide comments floating in cyber space, on social network platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Some said her speech was too heavily scripted in favour of the western powers stereotyping Muslim nations. Some criticised her saying she made Pakistan appear in bad light, as if there was no education at all, for girls in Pakistan.

And some others felt she should have talked about the NATO planes and drones striking Pakistani targets in Pakistan soil, under the garb of ‘war on terror’.

But I believe many of these critical words are completely insignificant in the larger context of, and absolutely irrelevant to, the actual event being organized for the youth by United Nations.

The event, attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki -moon, UN General President Vuk Jeremic, and  UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, had particular focus on education for children; and for girls, in particular.

It must also be noted that she spoke the truth. The latest figures show Pakistan of having the second highest number of children out of school in the world.

According to data collected by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Pakistan has 5.4 million children out of school, an increase of 300,000 from the year before. This was reported on June 10, 2013 by ‘The Express Tribune’, the first internationally affiliated newspaper in Pakistan which is partnered with The International Herald Tribune – the global edition of The New York Times.

According to UNGEI (United Nations Girls Education Initiate), some 66 million girls around the world are out of school. Many of them are still fighting for their right to education.

Girls, we know, face significant barriers to getting into school, remaining in school and achieving their educational goals. All too often, girls and women face deep-seated cultural beliefs about their role in society, as well as financial struggles, domestic responsibilities and other barriers.

Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, UNGEI Honorary Global Chair and UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, once said, “What saddens me is that we, as a global community, are losing so much potential when millions of children sit on the sidelines of life.  The next Nelson Mandela could be shining shoes on pavements in Somalia…the next Barack Obama could be toiling in fields in Angola…the next Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could be knotting carpets in factories…and we’ll never know”. 

Interestingly, July 12 – which was also Malala’s 16th birthday – has been declared as Malala Day by the UN.  

And Razia Sultana, a teenager from a village in Meerut,  in Uttar Pradesh, India, was awarded the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Global Education’s Youth Courage Award for Education on Friday. The award is in recognition of her efforts to help liberate 48 children from child labour bondage and motivate them to go to school.

In Bahrain, thankfully, just a quick look at the numbers in schools and universities shows a very healthy sign of strong encouragement to girls and young women in their educational pursuits. 

But worldwide, more than speeches and awards, the governments must take actionable steps towards not merely facilitating but towards encouraging girls to aim for fuller lives and greater successes.