Malala Yousafzai has gone to school today for the first time since she was shot last October. Then, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl was left for dead by the Taliban, a punishment inflicted on her simply for wanting to be educated.
Malala’s journey back from a hospital bed to the classroom is not only an inspirational story of courage triumphing over all the odds but a story of determination and, indeed, of destiny: a signal to the world that nothing—not even bullets and death threats—can now stand in the way of every girl’s right to education.
Yesterday Malala, who spent months in hospital recovering from neck, face, and head injuries, met teachers at her new school in Birmingham, England. Today she has met the pupils with whom she will learn as she starts to catch up on lost months of her schooling.
But around the world there are 32 million girls who will not be joining Malala at school today, unable to go to school because they are prevented from doing so or because there is no school to attend. Some of them are Malala’s friends in Pakistan’s Swat Valley who still face threats from the Taliban—and who understandably remain fearful that when they take their first step back into school, they will be attacked in the way she was nearly six months ago.
I have talked with Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz, two of Malala’s close friends who were on the fateful school bus and sitting next to Malala on the day she was shot. Still living in Swat, they are very brave girls. Both were hurt in the shootings. Both are determined, nonetheless, to have an education. They want to be doctors. But in the face of the threats and intimidation, they are finding it difficult to continue their schooling.
Of the 700,000 children not at school in their home province of Khyber Pakhtunkwha (KPK), 600,000 are girls. Until we provide both the resources and security for them and others to travel securely to school and feel safe from the Taliban while there, then many of Pakistan’s schools will remain closed, and literally millions of Pakistani girls will be denied an education.
If Shazia and Kainat are two of that total of 32 million girls who cannot join Malala in going to school today, there is an even more alarming statistic that sums up the unequal chances girls have in education. An astonishing number—500 million—of today’s generation of young girls are unlikely to complete their schooling. Indeed violence in and around schools is one of the biggest reasons for dropping out around the world. Up to 1.5 billion children experience violence every year, many within the supposedly safe walls of a school.
Some, perhaps as many as 10 million girls each year, will be taken out of school because they are forced into child marriages against their will. Like Mariama, the 13-year-old girl featured in the moving Plan International film on Niger in West Africa, about to be married off into a loveless partnership she did not choose.
Other girls, perhaps as many as seven or eight million school-age girls, will become domestic laborers, sent to sweatshop factories or to languish in the fields and farms. Others, like a young Indian girl, Ratni, taken from her village at only 13 and who is featured in our film on educationenvoy.org, will be trafficked into harm’s way—often violated, usually held captive in towns and cities far from home, left unprotected because families think naively that if their daughter leaves home for the city she might have a better chance of an education.
The bad news is that millions of children remain vulnerable because child labor, child trafficking, and anti-child-marriage laws are not being properly policed or implemented in dozens of countries around the world. The good news is that now girls themselves are joining Malala in fighting back. Around the world we see girls battling against their oppression by demanding the right to educational opportunity, and refusing to accept their subjugation.
In 14 areas of Bangladesh, where the average age of marriage is 15, girls have recently come together to declare ‘child-marriage-free zones’. There, groups of girls called ‘wedding busters'—supported by boys and teachers—are challenging the patriarchal systems that allow a father to sell a girl into a forced marriage at ages as low as 10, 11, and 12.
Since I first started writing about the movement for girls’ education, I have discovered how, in country after country, girls are now standing up for their rights against entrenched old patriarchal practices. In Nepal, a new girls’ movement is fighting an age-old custom under which at least 10,000 local girls are sold off each year into domestic labor. Again girls joining with girls, challenging the old traditions, are freeing thousands of their number from slavery and getting them back into school.
In India, dozens of girls who have been rescued from child labor have led a march, organized by The Global March Against Child Labor, to demand that laws against child trafficking be included in the new legislation on girls’ and women’s rights now being introduced in the wake of the Indian rape case. Their petition, a plea to the Indian Parliament to end this age-old discrimination and slavery, can be signed at www.educationenvoy.org.
Girls’ protests have spread from the Indian subcontinent to Africa. In Niger, a few months ago, where the vast majority of girls are married before 18, two girls challenged their parents’ decision to sell them off into wedlock at the ages of 14 and 15. As well as winning their battles in the courts, they and others have also appealed to tribal leaders and clan elders to enforce the laws that prohibit child marriage.
The technological revolution has helped advance change. In 2013, the internet—and especially the increased availability of mobile phones—are proving to be important tools that allow girls to connect with and talk to other girls across borders, raising global awareness about girls’ rights. And it is campaigns like ‘Girls not Brides', originated by The Elders, and Plan’s 'Because I am a Girl', that are giving girls a new confidence and elevating the ‘rights’ agenda from its 20th-century theme—the emancipation of women from evils inflicted on them—adding to it to a more modern 21st-century one, the demand by girls and women for their empowerment. Quite simply, girls want not just to be free from child labor, child marriage, and discrimination, but also to make the most of their potential.
When Pakistani girls wore headbands saying “I am Malala” in the wake of the shooting last year, they signaled that they would no longer be a silent majority acquiescing to their subjugation. Now that girls in Pakistan, India, and elsewhere are, in record numbers, signing petitions, leading demonstrations, writing protest letters and campaigning online and on the streets—not just against the violation of rights but for the immediate righting of wrongs—the world will never be the same again. Indeed the new power being demonstrated by girls is fast becoming one of the new superpowers of the age. By the middle of March in Pakistan alone, one million young people who are not at school have signed a nationwide petition calling on their government to recognize their right to free education. It is this pressure from below that is spurring international and national leaders to meet in Washington on April 18 to discuss what they can do to help off-track countries build schools, hire teachers, and provide learning for millions of out-of-school children.
Today Malala has opened a new chapter in her life going to a new school. Between now and the date by which the Millennium Development Goal on universal education has to be reached—the end of 2015—this growing movement for change, inspired by Malala, can ensure that 32 million once-forgotten out-of-school girls will follow her into the classroom.