"In our country, many children don’t attend school or learn how to read. Those who do, usually read only textbooks.... In Pakistan, even schools own very few books" - Malala Yousafzai
I raise my voice not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.
It was September 15, 2012, when I met Gul Makai, a 12-year-old girl who wrote articles for BBC on promoting girls' education and against religious extremism, at a hotel in Islamabad. She is today known to the world as Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate. I still recall Malala's smile when I asked her for an interview. I also met her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, and we negotiated to meet again next time as they had to go back then.
On October 9, 2012, I was attending a conference in Lima, Peru. When I came back to my hotel room, I was shocked by the news on the television―Malala had been shot and was in a critical condition. I thought for a while that the rivals of education, peace and harmony had succeeded in suppressing the voice of girls, their rights to education, and the voice of Malala. I feared that no one would now dare to raise their voices, like Malala did, as the voices of courage and passion are usually strangled in developing nations like it did in Pakistan.
But soon, reactions poured in from all over Pakistan against the attack on Malala, and that was an encouraging sign. And so, I believed that this was the time when women would be honoured, respected and appreciated; education will be a cause for many life telling stories.
Malala's attempted assassination was condemned across the globe. More than two million people signed the petition, launched by Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education, which led to the ratification of Pakistan's Right to Education Bill. After ages, this daring young girl gave Pakistan a cause to celebrate and cherish. “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are the most powerful weapons,” she said in her speech at the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013. I could clearly visualise her: loud voice and sparkling eyes with clear thoughts and a bold vision, part of her prominent and vibrant personality. Her speech made me think that we need many Malalas, but in reality, there exists only one, who has set thought-provoking aims for many girls.
The Nobel Peace Prize that Malala was awarded, with Indian child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, is a true symbol of her fight for the right, for making the unheard voices heard and, of course, of courage. “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations,” said the Nobel Peace Prize committee. “This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle, she has become a leading spokesperson for girls' rights to education.”
Also read: Interview with Malala Yousafzai
Pakistanis are also celebrating Malala’s Nobel Prize win, hailing her award as a victory for girls' education over the Taliban's violence. Tributes for the 17-year-old were led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who called her the “Pride of Pakistan”, while dozens of people from her hometown, Mingora in Swat, gathered at the main intersection to chant slogans and exchange sweets.
Since recovering from the trauma of the attack on her, Malala has addressed the UN, written a best-selling autobiography, and pushed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to do more to free hundreds of girls kidnapped by extremist militants. She has proved that you cannot put a halt to education by blowing up schools and attacking girls.
Malala is the Pakistani schoolgirl who dared to question life under the Taliban rule and became a rallying figure for every girl's right to education. Her journey is still on its way. As the founder of Women Media Center, empowering women through education of media has been my successful dream and mission. For me, Malala is an inspiring figure for what she is.
How Malala will take care of the responsibility of winning the Nobel Prize will set up new hopes for many girls, and along with the empowerment of girls through education, this will sustain peace in Pakistani society. Changing the perception in Pakistani society of what women can achieve has always been difficult, but Malala's struggle has given visibility to the condition of women here and advanced the human rights agenda.
Malala has shown that one should never give up on a cause one believes in. Empowering women through education to achieve their potential and be agents of positive change in their countries with more gender equality will also have higher levels of competitiveness and human development. She also motivates female lawmakers to introduce legislation that promotes education, health care, environment and, perhaps, specifically women aid.
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world,” said Malala in her UN speech. This brave young girl has shown the way to many. And now it is time for the government of Pakistan to look upon its duties and to establish accountability in the country, making way for many more Malalas, the symbol of pride.
The writer is editor, Dastak newsmagazine, and executive director, Women Media Center, Pakistan.
The Malala Magic
July 12, 1997: Malala Yousafzai was born in Mingora in the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan. She was named after Malalai, a Pashtun folk heroine known as Afghan Joan of Arc.
January 2009: Malala, then 11, started writing an anonymous blog for BBC Urdu at a time when the Taliban was gaining control in Pakistan and banned, among other things, television and girls’ education. Her last blog post read: “Today is 15 January, the last day before the Taleban’s edict comes into effect, and my friend was discussing homework as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Today, I also read the diary written for the BBC and published in the newspaper. My mother liked my pen name ‘Gul Makai’ [cornflower] and said to my father, ‘Why not change her name to Gul Makai?’ I also like the name because my real name means ‘grief stricken’.” The same year, The New York Times came out with a documentary on her, which received international coverage.
2011: Malala was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, which was later renamed as National Malala Peace Prize. She continued to speak against the Taliban and its regressive edicts.
October 9, 2012: Malala was shot in her head by a masked gunman in her school bus; the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. She had to be airlifted to a hospital in Birmingham in the United Kingdom, where she spent four months in recovery.
2013: Malala began attending Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham. Several awards came her way, including the International Children’s Peace Prize and the Sakharov Prize. She was on TIME magazine’s cover for being one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World”. She founded the Malala Fund to bring awareness and empower girls through education, especially in Pakistan, Nigeria and Kenya.
Thanks to the “I am Malala” campaign, Pakistan’s Right to Education Bill was ratified. But there is much more to be done. In its 2013 report on the state of Pakistan’s children, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child states that Pakistan ranks second with the most out-of-school children in the world. It is estimated that 23 per cent of rural and 7 per cent of urban children are not enrolled in any form of schooling.
According to the federal education ministry of Pakistan, the overall literacy rate is 46 per cent, while only 26 per cent of girls are literate. There are 1,63,000 primary schools in Pakistan, of which merely 40,000 have girls.
There are many reasons behind the low literacy rate among girls in Pakistan. According to UNICEF, 17.6 per cent of Pakistani children are working, most of them as female domestic helps. Another reason is girl child marriage. According to the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2006-2007), 50 per cent of married women aged 20-24 years were married before the age of 18 years.