Today is the 16th birthday of Malala Yousafzai, a young woman whose courageous story of standing up to the Taliban on behalf of Pakistani girls’ right to an education has inspired a worldwide movement.
From today she will publicly raise her voice on the critical importance of education for the first time since she was attacked in northwestern Pakistan’s Swat valley last year. Malala rose to prominence as an education activist through her outspoken stance and a diary she kept for the BBC.
In celebration of her birthday, today Malala will take her message of hope straight to the highest levels of officialdom, addressing the UN headquarters in New York where she will call on the governments of the world to provide free compulsory education for every child. Her address will also be heard by a gathering of more than 500 young people.
Towards that end, she will present a petition with more than 3 million signatures, demanding education for all by 2015 – a request that aligns with the UN’s Millennium Goals.
Her rallying cry goes like this: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
Malala has been praised for her courage by leaders from around the world, including former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said, “There will be no compromise with any religious extremist who says girls should not go to school or stop going to school at 10.”
He added, “This frail young girl who was seriously injured has become such a powerful symbol not just for the girls' right to education, but for the demand that we do something about it immediately.”
UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon added, “Education is the pathway to saving lives, building peace and empowering young people; That is the lesson that Malala and millions like her are seeking to teach the world.”
Since being shot in the head by the Taliban last October while returning home on a school bus, Malala has made an amazing recovery in England, where she underwent major surgery at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
During her recovery, she launched the Malala Fund with help from actress and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie – who donated $200,000 to the fund – became the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and started attending Edgbaston girls high school in Birmingham. And to top it off, the UN has officially declared today Malala Day.
Her actions seem to be having an effect. As an NDTV report notes, today more girls are flocking to the schools of the Swat valley than ever before. Alongside the spotlight shone by Malala’s courage, the report points to the Taliban’s waning influence in Pakistan, which suffered a major blow to its image following Malala’s shooting.
Yet, fear remains. “Many students were actually scared when the government named a college after Malala,” said Anwar Sultana, head mistress of Government Girls High School No 1 in the Swat valley town of Mingora.
The fear is unfortunately justified. While Malala is leading a campaign that could radically change the futures of tens of millions of children in Pakistan and around the world, a study done by UNESCO and Save the Children, titled Children still battling to go to school, found that 57 million children are not enrolled in school.
The good news is that this number is down from where it stood at 60 million in 2008. The bad news is that the number of unschooled children in conflict-ridden countries actually spiked from 42 percent to 50 percent over the same period.
Further, the report found that some 3,600 attacks on education – violence, torture and intimidation of students and teachers alike – occurred in 2012. This includes school bombings and recruitment of children into armed groups.
In Pakistan, almost half of all children and almost three-quarters of young girls across the nation are not enrolled in primary school, according to UN and government statistics published late last year. Further, in Malala’s home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where only 72 percent of men and 36 percent of women are literate, Islamic militants have destroyed 750 schools since 2008.
But hope still seems to be winning out. The province has rebuilt 611 of the destroyed schools and the new provincial government, led by the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, has upped its education budget by 27 percent to $660 million. It seems Malala’s message is sinking in.
“Every girl has been encouraged,” said Azra Niaz, a teacher at Government Girls High School No 1. “Their fear has stopped. Every girl now wants to become a Malala. They say ‘we want to study and progress in life.’”