Malala Yousafzai, a Lesson in Courage and Determination

People around the world are rightly outraged at the attempted   assassination of Pakistan’s courageous and determined advocate for   girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai. On her way home from school in   Mingora in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last week, a Taliban gunman walked up   to Malala’s school bus, asked for her name and shot her in the head and   neck.

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Malala came to public attention three years ago when she wrote a  diary for the BBC about life under the Taliban, which controlled Swat  from 2007 to 2009. In the diary, which she kept for the BBC’s Urdu  service under a pen name, she exposed the suffering caused by the  militants as they ruled.

Campaigning for girls’ education

Malala’s most passionate campaign was against the Taliban’s  prohibition of female education. A poignant entry from her blog entitled  ‘I may not go to school again’ from January 2009 reads:

“I was in a bad mood while going to school because winter vacations  are starting from tomorrow. The principal announced the vacations but  did not mention the date the school was to reopen. The girls were not  too excited about vacations because they knew if the Taliban implemented  their edict [banning girls' education] they would not be able to come  to school again. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen  but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here  again.”

On at least two occasions prior to this attack the Taliban threw  letters into Malala’s home warning her to stop her advocacy — or else.  Malala’s father, himself an outspoken education activist, had also  received death threats from the Taliban. But he was proud of his  daughter’s efforts and never asked her to stop.

Taliban attacks on education

The attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai is the latest in a  long line of attacks on education by the Taliban. On 12 November 2008 in  southern Afghanistan, two motorcyclists rode up to a group of 15 girls  and female teachers walking and chatting on their way to Mirwais Nika  Girls High School, Kandahar. The Motorcyclists threw a liquid over them  and Atifa Biba, 14, screamed as she felt and smelled her skin burning.  The liquid was battery acid. The attack left at least one girl blinded,  two permanently disfigured and two others seriously hurt. That attack  showed the lengths to which the Taliban were prepared to go to further  their political aims.

But unfortunately attacks on education are not just perpetrated by  the Taliban. The sheer volume of attacks on education documented in UNESCO’s 2010 compendium ‘Attacks on Education’ (PDF) demonstrates that the demolition of schools and assassination of  students and teachers is by no means limited to the Taliban in Pakistan  and Afghanistan.

A global phenomenon

At the time of the report, education has been attacked in at  least 31 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America over the  previous three years. These attacks range from the maiming of students  on their way to school or the forced recruitment of child soldiers and  suicide bombers, to the torture or killing of teachers and academics, to  the total destruction of centers of learning.

In Colombia, hundreds of teachers active in trade unions have been  killed in the last decade, the perpetrators often pro-government  paramilitaries and other parties to the ongoing conflict between the  government and rebel forces. In northern Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC), the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted large numbers  of children from schools and taken revenge on villages believed to be  aiding LRA defectors by, among other things, looting and burning  schools.

Stronger efforts at prevention, monitoring and accountability are  required. An effective response to attacks on education will require  more focused policies and action by concerned governments and a much  stronger international effort. Ensuring that students, teachers, and  schools are genuinely off limits to non-state armed groups and regular  armies will require governments, opposition groups, and other  organizations to implement strong measures that are enforced by rigorous  monitoring, preventive interventions, rapid response to violations, and  accountability for violators of domestic and international law.

Securing access to education

But we also need to redouble our efforts to ensure that  children like Malala actually have the chance to go to school. Despite  making education a fundamental constitutional right in 2010, Pakistan  has no chance of fulfilling its Millennium Development Goal of achieving  universal education by 2015. According to the Pakistan Education Task Force,  a body which includes senior education officials and independent  experts, over seven million primary-aged children do not attend school.

In 2010, UNESCO said in its Global Monitoring Report that 30 % of Pakistan’s population lives in a state of “extreme  educational poverty” – receiving less than two years of education.

Education in conflict-affected states key to peace

Over 40% of the 67 million children out of school worldwide live in fragile states with weak institutional capacity, poor governance, political  instability and, in many cases, ongoing violence or the legacy of past  conflict. A focus on education in fragile states will promote  peace-building and conflict mitigation, and foster economic growth. The  re-establishment of education systems in fragile states can provide a  visible sign of a return to normalcy. But funding for education in  conflict-affected fragile states remains massively insufficient.

In a recent e-mail to New York Times journalist Adam Ellick, who profiled Malala Yousafazai for a 2009 documentary ‘Class Dismissed’ she wrote “I want access to the world of knowledge.

She clearly knew the power of education and campaigned for herself, her  friends and for girls across Pakistan, and as a result became a target  for the Taliban.

In tribute, I hope we can muster half her courage and determination and make good on the promise of education for all.

You can sign a petition organised by Avaaz calling on Pakistan's President Zardari and Prime Minisister Pervez Ashraf to deliver education for every child through building  schools, training teachers and funding families whose daughters  regularly attend school.