By Susan M. Merritt, RDC
The tragic shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, in Pakistan, on the ninth of this month, caught my attention right away.
Malala, whose father is a school teacher, has been a strong advocate for girls’ education in a country where many children, especially girls, are still not in school. Another two girls, Malala’s classmates, were also injured. It is alleged that they were attacked by members of the Taliban in Pakistan because they were girls who were going to school.
As someone who has defended women's rights and particularly the right to education "all my life," I did some research.
On the day after the attack, there was an outcry around the world. A statement from UNGEI, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, condemned all attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and called for all parties to respect the right to education and to insure that all children, particularly girls, are safe from violence.
According to UNICEF, in Afghanistan in 2007, there were 236 school attacks and in 2008, 293. In Pakistan, 172 government and private schools, particularly girls’ schools, have been blown up or burned down, reportedly by illegal armed groups, since 2007.
Ironically, on Oct. 11, just two days after the attack on Malala Yousafzai and her two classmates, the United Nations celebrated the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, by calling for an end to child marriage and stressing education as one of the best strategies for protecting girls from that harmful practice. The International Day was the result of a resolution of the UN General Assembly on Oct. 11, and in this first year the theme was “ending child marriage.”
It is noted that 70 million young women are married before the age of 18. Girls with little schooling are more likely to be married early, but girls with secondary schooling are six times less likely to marry as children, making education an effective way of eliminating child marriage.
UNGEI, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, was launched by the UN at the World Education Forum in 2000. It is a partnership of organizations with the mission to eliminate the gender gap between boys and girls in primary and secondary education, and to build “a world where all girls and boys are empowered through quality education to realize their full potential and contribute toward transforming societies where gender equality becomes a reality." In sum, educating girls yields multiple benefits over multiple levels.
Over the past decade, UNGEI has contributed to the Millennium Development Goal 2 (MDG 2) on universal primary education and MDG3 on women’s empowerment and gender equality. In 2000 there were over 100 million children out of school worldwide, two thirds of whom were girls. Since then in the intervening decade that number has decreased dramatically, with girls making up an increasingly smaller proportion of the out-of-school population.
I read a story about a ten-year-old girl, Saima, the youngest of six children, living in a UNICEF-supported camp as a result of floods. Her brothers had been able to go to school in their village before the floods, but she, the only girl, had to stay at home to help her mother.
At the camp, however, she went to school for the first time. In the first two weeks at the camp, she learned to count and read the alphabet. She then began to read and memorize poems. She described the time in the camp as her “lifetime dream come true.”
In 2011, the United Nations called the UN Girls’ Education Initiative the top international priority, noting that there were only four years left, at the time, to meet the Millennium Goals (noted above).
Finally, there was some measured good news – or, perhaps, more, hope, for Malala Yousafza, who was flown to Birmingham, England, with a team of doctors, on a United Arab Emirates airplane on the sixteenth of this month.
Her bravery and commitment to women’s education is a wonderful inspiration to all of us and is also a call to do all that we can for women’s education throughout the world.
(The award winning film by Camfred, “Where the Water Meets the Sky” is an excellent resource on this topic.)