Post by: Sofia Naveed, Gender Specialist from Plan Pakistan
Photo credit: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images
On October 9, 2012, 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head because she is a girl and dared to defend every girl’s right to education. The attack sparked a wave of protests and condemnation across the world. The protests revealed a generation no longer willing to tolerate the gap between the promise of opportunity for all and the reality for millions of boys and girls shut out from even the most basic of primary schooling.
On October 11, 2012, Plan International launched its global campaign, Because I am a Girl, to support millions of girls to get the education, skills and support they need to transform their lives and the world around them. Plan International, like Malala, understands that educating girls can save lives and transform futures, setting the incredible potential of girls and their communities free.
For decades we have assumed the inevitability of the forward march of education, the inexorable year-on-year, continent-by-continent progress towards universal education. But if there is one reality that exposes our failure to deliver, it is that there are 61 million young children like Malala who will not go to school today or any other day. Written off at five and six years old, they will never come close to realizing their true potential.
Pakistan lags behind many other countries in its education. The country has the second largest number of children out of school – 5.1 million – yet reduced its spending on education from 2.6% to 2.3% of GNP over the decade. According to UNESCO reports fifteen million children under 14 who should be at school are working full time around the world. Every year, ten million girls leave education to become child brides and never return to school. Millions more are trafficked. And there are 28 million refugee girls and boys and displaced children living in the camp tents and shacks of broken down regimes and conflict zones with no teachers or schoolbooks.
Malala's courage to face oppression has rightly become a symbol of a wider struggle for equality in a country where all too often a girl’s education is valued less than a boy’s, or ends early through child marriage or is denied by the threat of violence. With the shooting of Malala, people across Pakistan have been unified in their outrage, but most importantly have come together to demand action by the government of Pakistan to improve the situation of rights for girls’ education. As Malala’s own father has pointed out, this is a turning point for Pakistan.
The outpouring of public support for Malala -- and for a child's right to an education -- tells us that we can persuade not only governments but the public to demand more. Millions of children face Malala's fight for an education. She also has attracted the attention of international leaders, including the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, who wrote in a CNN commentary that the attack on Malala highlights the plight of "61 million young children like Malala who will not go to school today or any other day." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Malala's bravery at a gathering of Girl Scouts in Washington. She said the attack on the teen should inspire support for other young women around the world who "struggle against tradition and culture and even outright hostility," to lay claim to their rights.
In Pakistan, young girls are wearing "I am Malala" T-shirts to show their solidarity with the teen activist. Malala spoke to CNN last year about her blog and her brave assertion that girls should go to school. "I have the right to an education," she said. "I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up." Her writing earned her Pakistan's first National Peace Prize.
Gordon Brown marked the UN-declared ‘Malala Day’ by delivering a petition to the Pakistani government with one million signatures calling on Islamabad to enroll every Pakistani boy and girl in primary school. Pakistani civil society organizations matched the U.N.'s signature drive with a petition of their own, signed by another 1.2 million Pakistanis supporting Malala's cause. "The march for the right to girls' education cannot be stopped," Brown told students during a visit to a girls' school in Islamabad. "Indeed it is unstoppable."
In Pakistan, girls' education has long been hampered by widespread poverty, a bias against girls' education by hardline Islamist groups, and what many view as a corrupt government. According to UN figures, 32 million of the world's school-aged girls do not get an education. Roughly 10 percent of those girls -- 3.1 million -- live in Pakistan. In a country where nearly 50 million Pakistanis can't read or write, two-thirds are women -- the third highest number of illiterate women in the world.
The UN says Pakistan still spends seven times more on the military than on primary education. Despite the statistics, the attack on Malala appears to have brought renewed hope and energy in the campaign to educate Pakistan's girls. The Pakistani government, the UN, the World Bank, and other international organizations have set an April 2013 deadline to come up with a plan to provide education to all of Pakistan's school-aged children by the end of 2015.
Editor's Note: An announcement was made today by the United Nations and the Pakistan government stating the ‘Malala Fund’ to educate underprivileged girls has been welcomed by Plan International. You can read the entire press release on our News & Press page.