Some spend their 21st birthday dining out with family or friends, others hosting a party or perhaps enjoying a first legal sip of wine or beer. And then there is Malala. She will spend her 21st birthday on July 12, 2018 (also known as Malala Day) doing what she has been doing for the past six years - advocating for girls’ education.
By now, most know her backstory. And yet it is so remarkable it bears repeating. In 2012 a member of the Taliban boarded her school bus, shooting 15-year-old Malala in the head. She had been targeted after blogging for the BBC about her life following the Taliban takeover of Pakistan’s Swat Valley where she lived. By 2008 girls education had been banned, teachers murdered and over 200 schools destroyed. (1) The remarkable part was still to come. As Malala herself said, “I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.” (2)
The repression and violence Malala experienced may be the story of many girls, but what she did about it is not. For starters, she recovered from a gunshot to the head, many surgeries and months of recovery. She went on to speak at the United Nations in 2013 at the age of 16, calling for worldwide access to education for girls. That same year she co-founded the Malala Fund with her father Ziauddin, to fundraise and support girls education. (2)
She celebrated her 17th birthday in Nigeria meeting with the families of girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram and helping to bring the world’s attention to their plight. Later that year, she won a Nobel Peace Prize. In 2015 on her 18th birthday she helped open a secondary school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon. In 2016 she launched #YesAllGirls, a social media campaign in sync with her other advocacy efforts. Her accomplishments before even crossing the threshold into adulthood could make one’s head spin. She continues to travel around the world spreading her message while she meets with citizens and heads of state alike. (2)
The need for her work is crystal clear. More than 130 million girls worldwide are deprived of an education each year. The reasons are multifaceted: child marriage, war, prohibitive cost, health challenges and child labor.
In Tanzania, gender parity has been nearly achieved in primary school. However, a significant gap still exists at the secondary level. Only 60 percent of adolescents are able to access lower-secondary education. Of these, only one-third of girls who enter secondary school graduate. Reasons include a lack of secondary schools in rural areas, an exam that limits access to secondary schools, and unaffordable fees for uniforms and books. (3)
Perhaps most troubling is a government policy to expel pregnant or married girls. More than one-third of girls are married by the age of 18. In 2016, pregnancy led almost 3,700 girls to drop out of schools. (5) In fact, Human Rights Watch reports that pregnancy tests are regularly conducted in schools. (3)
In addition, girls are vulnerable to sexual violence both en route to school and in the schools themselves. Many children must walk several miles in order to access an education. Girls are vulnerable to attacks along the way. (4) The schools themselves are not always safe either. In 2011 UNICEF reported that roughly 1 in 10 girls experienced sexual violence by a teacher. (5)
Investing in girls’ education goes a long way. Consider that each additional year of school cuts infant mortality and child marriage rates. Education among girls leads to healthier young women who raise healthier families. (2) “Girls who receive secondary education will marry later, have higher family incomes, tolerate less domestic violence and give children better care, thereby reducing infant mortality rates,” according to the Africa School Assistance Project, an international organization promoting education in Sub-Saharan Africa. (4)
Malala’s desire to keep learning is as much a beacon as her advocacy efforts. She currently is studying politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University. If Malala gets her way, all girls may have the same bright future - without fear of being the target of a loaded gun.
Happy Malala Day!