10/23/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Malala's Power

Education advocates across the world are celebrating Malala Yousafzai's worldwide recognition. She has turned the horrible attack she suffered in the hands of the Taliban into an opportunity to raise her voice to educate girls everywhere. Such is the following Malala has inspired that many -- myself included -- were disappointed when she was not awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

But even with all these accolades, Malala knows that her advocacy is in its infancy. Thirteen years after world leaders committed to providing access to education to all primary-school-aged children by 2015, there are more than 57 million boys and girls out of school. Immediate action is needed, or there could be irreparable consequences.

The importance of education was apparent to me at an early age. I was six years old when a civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991. My family fled after our home and my school were burnt down, among the many indiscriminate acts I witnessed. My memories of African birds were swiftly replaced by those of guns and bombs. First, we were displaced in our country and then became refugees in neighboring Guinea. Many friends and loved ones were killed, maimed or forcefully recruited into militias.

For us kids, hope came in the classroom. Outside, we queued up and fought for food. Inside, we laughed and learned. Our teachers, though poorly paid and often displaced themselves, made us forget about the misery and chaos around us. The war took away big chunks of our childhood. School helped us survive.

So I know what education means when everything else is lacking. Today, 28 million children -- half of the total number out of school -- are in conflict zones or under broken-down regimes. They are being denied food, shelter, safety and their right to education.

Take the current situation in Syria; children account for half of the two million Syrian refugees. Lebanon alone will soon house 500,000 Syrian boys and girls, and it can offer schooling to less than 10 percent of them. Without an education, these young people could give in to anger, restlessness, and desperation. We could be looking at a future with millions of uneducated young people who will become unemployable adults, many graduating to violence for survival. The world cannot endure this outcome.

Everywhere I go -- Liberia, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Lebanon -- I see young people like me who are at the crossroads of hope and despair. Education is often the determinant of their path. For instance, each additional school year can increase a young person's earnings by as much as 10 to 20 percent over his or her lifetime. We know it is our best investment for a stable and prosperous future.

Yet education in conflict zones receives a tiny fraction of international funding -- less than 2 percent of total humanitarian aid -- despite the strong evidence of its benefits. But lack of funding isn't the only problem. National governments need to give a high priority to education; civil society and business also have important roles in raising the bar for expanding access and improving quality of learning.

One sign of progress is Nigeria, the country with the largest number of children -- over 10 million -- out of school. Its national and state governments, together with the international community and the private sector, are working together to address the serious education gap. United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown has rallied partners and put forward compelling proposals to begin educating many of these children before 2015.

Young advocates like Malala and me are calling on governments to make education a priority and put pressure on those who don't. Last July, I led more than 500 young people from over 100 countries to the United Nations in New York to stand in solidarity with Malala on her 16th birthday. Thousands more all over the world organized events in their communities; millions made their voices heard online. Malala's incredible story inspires this unprecedented global movement.

In our most difficult days during the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, my mother would tell me to hold on to my education. Malala has said that instead of sending bombs to unstable countries, we should send books. Both of them know that extremism, violence and poverty thrive only when illiteracy reigns. Malala, our movement's hero, has ignited something powerful. It's time for world leaders to respond and provide education for all children.

Chernor Bah is the Campaign Coordinator for Youth Engagement for A World at School, a global initiative working to achieve quality education for all children and young people.