credit: United Nations Photo via creative commons

Malala’s Message

Why the world should care about Malala — and all the girls like her, all around the world

A year ago I sat in a New York City public high school and listened to a girl from West Africa tell me about her own personal and years-long fight to stay in school.

She wanted to stay in the classroom, even go to college, but her father wanted her to marry a man from his home country and to abandon her studies in favor of becoming a wife and mother right away. With visible anguish she told me of a friend, a classmate from Yemen, who hadn’t been as lucky as she had thus far managed to be: the year before her father had taken her out of high school against her will and sent her to Yemen to marry a husband of his choice.

A few years earlier I interviewed a girl in Afghanistan around the age of 11 or 12 who told me about wanting to become an airline pilot. Her mother had married her off to an older man and she had been “rescued” by a local shelter that wanted to keep her in school.

In India I met a mother who told me education was not for girls. She herself had been brought to her husband’s house when she was not even ten years old. That was how they did things in her community, she said. But her daughter had been part of a program that offered parents a financial incentive for keeping their girls unwed until the age of 18. The girl had had the chance to go to school. And now she was hoping desperately that college might be possible.

It didn’t look likely.

Today, as Malala Yousafzai accepts the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage in standing up to the Taliban and fighting for her right to go to school, we must remember how much fight remains ahead. In corners all around the world, from New York to New Delhi, West Africa to southern California, girls are battling for their own right to learn. To achieve. To dream. Often these girls are shunned by their families and ostracized by their communities simply because they want to learn and are willing to risk nearly everything just to stay in a classroom.

Like Malala, they want simply to have the opportunity to pick up a pencil, read a book and become who they would be if no barriers stood in their way.

Often the world has seen fit to applaud heroines like Malala and then go back about its business. But the call to action Malala has issued on behalf of all the other girls like her whom we will never meet must be heeded alongside the headlines of her inspiring triumph.

A 2014 UNESCO report notes that in 2011, 57 million children were out of school. Girls account for more than half of this figure. In Arab nations, 60 percent of the children out of school are girls, a figure UNESCO notes has not changed since 2000.

Most of these kids out of school will never make it into a classroom. Notes UNESCO, “the same is true for almost two of three girls in the Arab States and sub-Saharan Africa.”

“In sub-Saharan Africa, only 23% of poor girls in rural areas were completing primary education by the end of the decade. If recent trends in the region continue, the richest boys will achieve universal primary completion in 2021, but the poorest girls will not catch up until 2086.”

The world does not have until 2086. Education matters too much to the world’s progress to wait another seven decades. Girls who are educated often have the confidence to stand up against early marriage and avoid the perils of early childbirth and the health risks that accompany it. Educated parents are more likely to have better nourished and better educated children. And as Education Secretary Arne Duncan has noted, low educational attainment is among the strongest predictors of future violence.

If you want a safer, richer, better educated and more stable world, in other words,
it begins with education. For everyone.

“When I heard that I cannot go to school, I just for a second thought that I would never able become a doctor or I would never be able to be who I want to be in the future, and my life would be just getting married at the age of 13 or 14, not going to school, not becoming who I really can be, so I decided that I will speak up,” Yousafzai said when she learned last October that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. “This award is for all those children who are voiceless, whose voices need to be heard. And I speak for them and I stand up with them and I join them in their campaign, that their voices should be heard.”
The moment is here to hear the voices and see the faces of girls who will never have the chance to sit at a desk and learn. And to realize that our future is bound with theirs.

We will never know how much potential is lost to the thwarted dreams and suffocated hopes of girls torn from their studies. But we can be certain it will leave all of us a world that is poorer, less healthy and more dangerous.

That is Malala’s message. And it hits a lot closer to home than many of us would imagine.

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Author of New York Times best sellers “Ashley’s War” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Adjunct senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. All views mine.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Author of New York Times best sellers “Ashley’s War” and “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Adjunct senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. All views mine.