Malala and fellow teenage girls struggle not to stall out in school
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived a Taliban assassination attempt, has become a leading voice for girls' education and spoke at the UN today.
â€śWhich one of you is Malala?â€ť he demanded, referring to Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old education activist. â€śSpeak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.â€ť
Before anyone could answer, he saw her, raised his gun, and fired. Then he ran, leaving the girl and two of her friends for dead on the crowded bus.Â
But she was not dead. Today, almost nine months to the day later â€“ on her 16thÂ birthday â€“ Malala stood before the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York to deliver her first public speech since the assassination attempt, calling on the global community to rally behind the cause of universal educational access.
â€śThey thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed â€“ and out of that silence came thousands of voices,â€ť she said. â€śThe terrorists thought that they would change my aim and stop my ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear, and hopeless died. Strength, courage, and fervor were born.â€ť
But the confidence radiating from the young activist, who wore a vivid pink shawl once owned by assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, belies the staggering challenges that still face education activists around the world. Â
Some 57 million primary school-aged children worldwide were out of school in 2011, according to a study released yesterday by the international NGO Save the Children, half of them in countries embroiled in violent conflict.Â
Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2012, the percentage of international humanitarian aid devoted to education dipped from 2.2 percent to 1.4 percent.
And most prescient to the teenage activist making her case at the UN today, there are also 69 million adolescents not enrolled in secondary school. This cohort's educational crisis has often lingered just beyond the reach of international campaigns and funding.
â€śSecondary education is a particularly difficult issue because youâ€™re dealing with infrastructural issues, but youâ€™re also dealing with great social malaise in many cases,â€ť says Orla Kelly, an expert on gender and education in South Asia at Harvard's FranĂ§ois-Xavier BagnoudÂ (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights. â€śThereâ€™s a great consensus in much of the world that children should go to school, but thereâ€™s a lot less agreement about if they should continue during those later years, especially if they are girls.â€ť
Itâ€™s no coincidence, she says, that the Taliban targeted a 15-year-old well on her way to her ambition of becoming a doctor. That, after all, is the moment when education â€“ particularly the education of girls â€“ threatens to tip the balance of a conservative social order.
The Taliban â€śare afraid of women,â€ť Malala said. â€śThey were and are afraid of change and the equality we will bring into our society. They think God is a tiny conservative being.â€ť
Malala first rose to international attention in 2009, when the 12-year-old authored an anonymous blog for the BBC on her experiences growing up in Pakistanâ€™s troubled tribal belt, where the Taliban has attacked more than 800 schools in the past four years.
â€śI had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban,â€ť she wrote in one entry. â€śI have had such dreams since the launch of the military operationâ€¦. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.â€ť
But it was the news of the fearsome attempt on her life, and her unexpected recovery in a London hospital late last year, that elevated the activist and her cause to international cĂ©lĂ¨bre. The UN declared Friday, Malalaâ€™s birthday, â€śMalala Day.â€ť
But history rarely pivots on a single newsworthy event, Ms. Kelly notes.
â€śWhen the cameras go away, the problems are still there,â€ť she says. â€śThere has to be grassroots organizing on the ground to make change.â€ť
In places like Pakistanâ€™s tribal belt, she says, many want that change. But many rightly see the prospect of defying Taliban edicts against girlsâ€™ education as literally a matter of life and death. After all, they say, look what happened to Malala.
For her part, the 16-year-old now attends school in Birmingham, England. The school she attended in Pakistan, which was started by her father, is still open, despite threats of violence. And she says the Talibanâ€™s retaliation has only strengthened the resolve of young people there to get an education.Â
â€śWe realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced,â€ť Malala said. â€śIn the same way [in Pakistan] we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the gun.â€ť