Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who has become an icon for her devotion to women's education, turned 16 on Friday, and her birthday is now a symbol of global girls' education, as July 12 has been declared Malala Day with the support of the United Nations Secretary-General's Global Education First Initiative (GEFI). Malala, who has been named one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2013 and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, became a public figure when the Taliban tried to assassinate her as she rode the bus to school last year in Pakistan. She was targeted because of her fight for the right of all girls to an education.
Education is crucial, since it is an important method of challenging poverty and harmful traditions such as gender-based discrimination and violence. Gender equality in education is a fundamental issue because providing education for girls is necessary in order to establish well-balanced communities and nations.
However, in many parts of the world, girls' education is neglected. In 2000, at the United Nations' Millennium Summit, world leaders set ambitious goals to be achieved by 2015. They aimed for universal primary education and to promote gender equality and empower women. I remember then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on businessmen to invest in the education of women.
Twelve years later, I witnessed current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2012 urge all businessmen to increase their investment in women's education. Such déjà vu! It feels like there wasn't much progress in those 12 years.
On March 5, 2012, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produced a world atlas of gender equality in education. The UNESCO Atlas -- with more than 120 maps, charts and tables -- shows differences in education, such as access to, participation in and development of, between girls and boys. The atlas clearly shows that many countries are not even close to the numbers that were targeted for them at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, especially South Africa and parts of Asia.
In a press release on July 8, Ban said,
There are still 57 million children out of primary school. Many live in countries embroiled in conflict. More than 120 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 lack basic reading and writing skills -- the majority of whom are young women. In a swiftly evolving job market, too many young people leave school without the skills to earn a living.
Young girls are facing many challenges around the world to receive an education. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), "between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will become child brides. If current levels of child marriages hold, 39,000 girls daily will marry too young. Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before the age of 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15."
Child marriage is not only a violation of human rights and keeps girls out of education, but is also an important reason for long-term health complications. UN statistics show that "complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 years in developing countries. Of the 16 million adolescent girls who give birth every year, about 90 percent are already married. UNICEF estimates that some 50,000 die, almost all in low- and middle-income countries. Stillbirths and newborn deaths are 50 percent higher among mothers under the age of 20 than in women who get pregnant in their 20s."
That means a lack of education jeopardizes the lives of both mothers and their children. When it comes to maternal healthcare, family planning and sexual health, we can easily say that women who don't receive an education are more vulnerable.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," said Nelson Mandela. Educating girls, however, guaranties education for generations.
The fight for equality in education is simply a fundamental human right. It is the first necessary step for equity in every dimension of life.
Malala is a gem of a girl and an inspiration for all of us. She advocates that we can all join and work together to make our common future better through education for all. She is a shining example to modern societies, where education has lost its essence and is neglected by teens. Malala's efforts remind us one more time that education is the way to save lives, to build peace and to empower youth.
Happy sweet 16 to Malala and happy Malala Day to all the girls around the world to remember that education is a right for every single person and essential for societies. For a brighter future for everybody, let's put girls' education first.
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This article was previously published in Today's Zaman.