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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.

The hooded Taliban gunman stepped onto the bus full of schoolgirls in northwest Pakistan and barked a single question.  

“Which one of you is Malala?” he demanded, referring to Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old education activist. “Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.”

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. 

But she was not dead. Today, almost nine months to the day later – on her 16th birthday – 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.

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“They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed – and out of that silence came thousands of voices,” she said. “The 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.”

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.  

Some 57 million primary school-aged children worldwide were out of school in 2011, according toa study released yesterday by the international NGO Save the Children, half of them in countries embroiled in violent conflict. 

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.

“Secondary education is a particularly difficult issue because you’re dealing with infrastructural issues, but you’re also dealing with great social malaise in many cases,” says Orla Kelly, an expert on gender and education in South Asia at Harvard’s François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights. “There’s a great consensus in much of the world that children should go to school, but there’s a lot less agreement about if they should continue during those later years, especially if they are girls.”

It’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 – particularly the education of girls – threatens to tip the balance of a conservative social order.

The Taliban “are afraid of women,” Malala said. “They were and are afraid of change and the equality we will bring into our society. They think God is a tiny conservative being.”

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 Pakistan’s troubled tribal belt, where the Taliban has attacked more than 800 schools in the past four years.

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“I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban,” she wrote in one entry. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation…. 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.”

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 célèbre. The UN declared Friday, Malala’s birthday, “Malala Day.”

But history rarely pivots on a single newsworthy event, Ms. Kelly notes.

“When the cameras go away, the problems are still there,” she says. “There has to be grassroots organizing on the ground to make change.”

In places like Pakistan’s tribal belt, she says, many want that change. But many rightly see the prospect of defying Taliban edicts against girls’ 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 Taliban’s retaliation has only strengthened the resolve of young people there to get an education. 

“We realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced,” Malala said. “In the same way [in Pakistan] we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the gun.”