Anyone who follows current affairs or is interested in the state of education will have heard of a teenage girl from Pakistan called Malala Yousafzai. Those who prefer to follow ‘celebrity news’ will also have heard of Malala: she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2013.
We know Malala’s name because on 1 October 2012, at the age of just 14, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman.
Malala was sitting in her school bus when a man climbed on board and demanded to know “Which one of you is Malala?” When she answered, “I am Malala”, the man opened fire.
Malala and one of her friends were hit by the bullets. You would not be wrong to wonder why a teenager could be perceived as a threat by the Taliban, but Malala Yousafzai is no ordinary adolescent girl.
No ordinary teenager
In 2009, the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, where the Yousafzais live in the town of Minghora, and Malala’s father ran a private secondary school for girls.
With Taliban control came the order that all schools were to be closed.
As part of their coverage of these events, the BBC searched for locals who would be willing to blog about the changes that Taliban rule brought to their everyday lives.
Malala became a BBC blogger using the synonym ‘Gul Makai’ (meaning ‘Cornflower’ in Urdu).
She documented her fears for her future – as well as those of her girlfriends. They all worried about how they could have a future if they were to be denied access to schools.
Malala used her blog to condemn the Taliban’s actions, and to demand that girls be given access to school. She became an advocate for girls’ right to education.
No-one is off limits
Surgeons in Pakistan removed a bullet from Malala’s head after the shooting, and she was flown to the UK for specialist treatment.
A titanium plate and cochlear implant were fitted, and Malala was discharged from hospital in February to continue her rehabilitation.
The attack on Malala was not an isolated incident, the Taliban in Pakistan have also targeted teachers and burnt down empty schools.
Just four months ago in March, a teacher at a girls’ school was murdered as she walked to school in the Khyber District. A male school principal was murdered and scores of school children were also injured in Karachi.
It is distressing to note that the Pakistani Taliban does not hold the monopoly on targeting school children.
Over the last few months, schools, teachers and children in northern Nigeria have also been targeted by the extremist ‘organisation’ known as Boko Haram. As recently as Saturday 6 July, 42 students and teachers were killed in Yobe State during a Boko Haram terror attack.
Like the Taliban, Boko Haram (which means ‘Western education in a sin’ in Hausa, the most widely spoken language in northern Nigeria), believes that education and educated girls are a threat to Islam and to the Islamist states that they would like to see established in their respective countries.
Hillary Clinton has stated that school children, especially school girls, are considered a threat by violent extremist movements: if children are busy learning in school, it is not so easy to impose extremism on them when they become adults.
However, what the Taliban was clearly not expecting was that Malala would survive, and that her cause would be taken up by powerful allies in Pakistan and around the world.
‘Action that brings the world to its senses’
Just two months after the near-fatal shooting, a high level advocacy event was co-organised by UNESCO and the Government of Pakistan at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, on 10 December, 2012, which is International Human Rights Day.
Entitled ‘Stand Up for Malala – Girls’ Education is a Right’, the event was held to advocate for the unequivocal right to education for every girl in the world.
Girls make up more than 70 per cent of the 61 million children and young people globally who are denied the right to education.
After Nigeria, Pakistan has the second highest number of children out of school (5.1 million), two-thirds of whom are girls.
Recognising the scale of this worldwide problem, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, noted at the 10 December event that: “What we need are not speeches that bring people to their feet, but action that brings the world to its senses”.
The Government of Pakistan responded by announcing the establishment of the Malala Fund for Girls’ Education, to which the government immediately pledged 10 million US dollars.
Brown’s office launched and coordinated a petition, signed by millions of individuals around the world, calling on the Pakistani government to guarantee education for all, and safe learning spaces for teachers and pupils alike.
A day for all Malalas
On 12 July, the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York is hosting a special event called ‘Malala Day’.
It is the auspicious day on which Malala will celebrate her sixteenth birthday by addressing the UN’s highest leadership, and presenting them with a set of education demands developed by young people, for young people – the Youth Outcomes Document.
Young leaders from around the world will stage a ‘sit-in’ at the UN, calling for members states to honour their promises and turn their rhetoric and policies on education into concrete measures.
Malala Day is a day to stand up for girls’ education, a day to stand up for universal quality education for all.
The final draft of the Youth Outcomes Document calls on UN member states to: pass a UN Security Council Resolution recognising the global education crisis; enact measures that will ensure every child can go to school; address the difficulties faced by girls and marginalised groups; ensure that the education young people received is quality education; increase the funding available for education; and guarantee young people’s participation in the development of education policies.
The Malala Day event at the UN will be run in parallel to events in countries around the world, where schools, NGOs and teachers’ trade unions will call on national governments to live up to their education promises.
Education International (EI), the world’s largest trade union federation representing the voices of 30 million education employees globally, has been working closely with the office of Gordon Brown to ensure that girl children’s right to education is protected.
EI is equally concerned to note the escalation of extremist attacks on teachers and school premises, as well as on pupils. EI’s resolution on schools as safe sanctuaries calls for an end to ‘impunity for attacks on education’.
The Youth Outcomes Document makes it clear that the future of young people depends on access to quality education, from early childhood through to higher education.
EI welcomes the young people’s initiative and their rights-based approach to calling for quality education for all.
This reflects the global EI mobilisation for equitable quality public education for all, which will be launched in partnership with the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown this October.
Teacher and educator trade unions and organisations stand firmly with the young voices demanding that their right to education must be protected, no matter where in the world they come from.
We are in the second decade of the 21st century, and we all know what every child needs to grow up and to thrive in this world.
The time has come to shift from making promises to taking action to make sure that education is truly for all.