I feel proud when I tell people that I’m from Swat in Pakistan, with its green and mountainous valley. But I don’t feel proud about the number of women and girls where I’m from who are still being deprived of an education.
Among the girls whom I have taught—girls like Malala Yousafzai, the young education activist whom the Taliban tried to assassinate—I see the dignity that education can offer. This is why I have dedicated my career to teaching, and why I am doing what I can to ensure all girls have the chance to go to school by supporting UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report.
At the Khushaal School and College in Mingora, where I started my career, 700 out of 1,000 pupils are boys. Many girls are prevented from going to school because of poverty and conflict. In Mingora, however, the most common reasons for girls not attending classes are cultural. People fear that females will become too independent if they are educated. Instead parents prefer to marry off girls early, some as young as 10. Girls and young women are otherwise considered to be a financial burden if left dependent on their parents.
Early marriages take place not just where I have worked, but in all of the villages and towns around me. News articles in Pakistan have recently reported that almost a quarter of girls from rural parts of Pakistan were married before they were even 18 years old.
In the school where I have been teaching for over a decade, I have seen with my own eyes how this discrimination plays out. “A girl’s place is at home,” parents often tell me. In Swat, parents equate empowerment and education with a woman or girl being too clever for her own good.
Even if parents agree to give a girl an education, the quality of learning is restricted and she will only attend classes for a certain number of years. It is not rare for girls to make it through only primary school before being told enough is enough.
This is why I have been working tirelessly, along with Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, to change these damaging perspectives and cultural practices. These are crimes against humanity that I have no choice but to decry.
I am also supporting UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report team as its members work to tell world leaders that denying girls equal access to education is blocking the progress of communities and countries like Pakistan. Holding these girls’ back from an education is denying them their dignity, but it is denying their countries of so much more.
In Swat, parents equate empowerment and education with a woman or girl being too clever for her own good.
The UNESCO report team shows exactly what countries are missing out on in their new analysis. They have shown that education does not just enable someone to read and write, but can save lives too: Mothers learn to breastfeed their children, to vaccinate them, and seek treatment if they are ill. Enough of putting time and money into conflicts and the military; it is time for politicians to realize that schooling has far greater power than fighting to transform their countries into the pioneering nations they want them to be.
Helping all go to school, and not just some pockets of society, also makes a country richer. UNESCO has shown me how Pakistan and Vietnam used to be on an equal economic footing, but that an unequal education has meant that Vietnam’s wealth has fast overtaken our own. In Pakistan, around a fifth of the population lives under the poverty line. Just imagine how life could change for our country if all girls and women—one half of our population—were educated and financially empowered.
An education also gives us the confidence to stand up for our rights. If all women completed just a primary education, the number of children forced into marriage by the age of 15 would be reduced by almost half a million around the world. If they completed a secondary education, the number of these child brides would be reduced by two-thirds, saving 2 million girls from this fate.
As a mother and a teacher, I believe education is not about just spending five hours a day in the classroom. It is about giving people the opportunity to learn about their rights and for them to have better opportunities in the long run. This is the only way we can create sustainable environments where people can be independent of aid, and can grow and prosper.
Yet a mixture of poverty and ignorant practices has led to Pakistan now being home to the second-largest number of children out of school. This is simply unacceptable.
I will be in New York this week with UNESCO for the United Nations General Assembly. World leaders will also be there discussing the future of young people around the globe. I will be doing all I can to help them hear the message that educating females must be a priority now and in the future. Education is the key to giving women and girls a voice in this world and a vehicle to help them transform our world for the better.
Mariam Khalique, Malala Yousafzai's teacher at Khushaal School and College in Swat, Pakistan and campaigner for girls’ education.
Read the full UNESCO Education For All Global Monitoring Report booklet: ‘Education Transforms Lives.’ Follow on Twitter: @EFAReport #educationtransforms.