Education is one of the most powerful instruments for reducing poverty and inequality and lays the foundation for sustained economic growth according to the World Bank. So why is it not the basic right of all children in the world? There are many reasons, but let’s focus on one small part of the world that is in the news so much lately – Pakistan – and one 14-year-old girl in particular who just wanted to go to school, Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen-year-old campaigner for education for girls in Mingora, a town in Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.
One in ten of the world’s children who do not go to primary school live in Pakistan. One of the reasons is simply that girls are often forbidden to go to school based on Taliban rules. On October 9, 2012, a Tuesday afternoon, Taliban militants stopped a school bus, asked for Malala by name and shot her in the head, neck and shoulder, seriously injuring her, another student and a teacher. Fast forward two years to Wednesday, December 10, 2014, and she is accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Kailash Satyarthi, for fighting for rights of children to get an education, abolish children slavery and youth marriage, among other children’s rights. Malala, as she is mostly known as, is the youngest person, at 17, to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize in its history.
Nine months after being shot, she delivered a speech to the UN, stating, “They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed,” she said. “And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. … Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.” The reason she was singled out is because since 2009, when the BBC World Service Urdu Web site wanted to follow ordinary people’s lives under the Taliban as they were covering the violence and politics in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. They approached Ziauddin Yousafzai, a local school director, to get a female teacher to report on what they experienced, but no one agreed. But his 11-year-old daughter, Malala, a seventh-grade student, was interested in writing a diary. They decided to publish her diary, but for her protection, to release it under a pseudonym. They called it, The Diary of a Pakistani School Girl, which was published under the byline Gul Makki.
She depicts life under Taliban control with the violence in her village, the ban on education for girls, the fear of going to school once the ban was lifted, bombings, beheadings, the fear of going to the market when the Taliban banned women from shopping, and how many of her friends sought refuge in other cities. But still she wrote how she believed in the right of all people to get an education and the rights of women. Her father was an activist for women’s education and her mother, who was uneducated, was planning to learn to read, ironically, on the day Malala was shot. Both supported her diary and outspokenness wholeheartedly. Neither ever thought that she would be singled out by the Taliban. In 2011, she received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize and she was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. Her increased profile and strident criticism of the Taliban caused Taliban leaders to meet, and in 2012, they voted to kill her.
Once shot, Malala was flown in a military helicopter to a military hospital in Peshawar; Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had arranged for her to be flown out of Pakistan to get the complex surgery needed to save her. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, claimed responsibility and threatened to attack her again, if she survived. She did survive and was moved to England where she currently goes to school and promotes education for all girls around the world, and specifically in Pakistan.
Her assassination attempt received worldwide condemnation and protests across Pakistan. Over 2 million people signed the Right to Education campaign. The petition helped lead to the ratification of Pakistan’s first right to education bill. Her shooting, and her refusal to stand down from what she believed was right, brought to light the plight of millions of children around the world who are denied an education today. Malala became a global advocate for the millions of girls being denied a formal education because of social, economic, legal and political factors.
Malala also wrote a book called I Am Malala recounting her life. She co-founded, along with her father, the Malala Fund to bring awareness to the social and economic impact of girls’ education and to empower girls to raise their voices, to unlock their potential, and to demand change. To donate to the Malala Fund, go here.