The Taliban made a big mistake in Pakistan when they attacked children traveling to school last October.
A young girls education activist named Malala Yousafzai was critically wounded. Malala, as the world has come to know her, survived the attack and is now a global symbol for girl’s education. She recovered in London and spent her 16th birthday, today, at the UN to deliver a speech on the importance of education.
“The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” said Malala. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women.”
The Taliban wanted to keep girls from going to schools by assassinating a vocal young girl. Instead they are responsible for propelling a powerful activist on education to the world’s biggest stage. Hence forth, July 12 will be known as Malala Day, in honor of the heroism and determination of one young girl.
She has a supporter in former UK prime minister Gordon Brown. The new UN special envoy for global education said it is possible to get all children, boys and girls, into school by 2015.
“It is only impossible if people say it’s impossible. Malala says it is possible – and young people all over the world think it is possible,” said Brown.
Malala was joined by nearly 1,000 other youth activists to lift up the issue of education. Fifty-seven million children did not go to school in 2011, an improvement from sixty million in 2008. However, conflict remains a significant obstacle to children going to school. A pair of reports from UNCESCO and Save the Children released today draw attention to the burden of conflict on education.
Half of all the children who do not go to school live in conflict-afflicted areas, says the UNCESCO report. The majority live in low-income countries and girls faces the toughest challenges. Young girls often face sexual violence, a problem that accompanies armed conflicts.
“Across many of the world’s poorest countries, armed conflict continues to destroy not just school infrastructure, but also the hopes and ambitions of a whole generation of children,” UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said.
Even in cases where children living in conflict states are able to access education the quality can be compromised. It is estimated that more than 3,900 schools in Syria have been destroyed, occupied or used for non-education purposes. That is only as of this January. Save the Children shares data from April which estimates 22% of all schools in Syria are unusable for students.
The report from Save the Children uses case studies to illustrate how conflict impacts education and issues a call for governments, the UN and the humanitarian community to take action.
“The international community must seize this as a key opportunity to ensure universal respect for the right to education for millions of children whose lives are blighted by conflict,” says the report.
Conflict in Mali has disrupted the education for 700,000 young people, estimates UNICEF. Fighting last year in the Gao, Tumkuktu and Kidal regions of Mail kept more than half of all schools closed. Children were recruited to leave school and join in the fighting. Some of the schools that did manage to stay open experienced pressures from Islamist rebels.
“They destroyed our school, we couldn’t go any more. On Monday I went to school. The rebels came into the school. They didn’t like the way some of the girls were dressed. They yelled at us, saying that what we were wearing wasn’t good,” said twelve year-old Sita to Save the Children.
Although a French-led campaign helped quell much of the fighting, problems persist. When schools began to re-open in Timbuktu this February schools ballooned to as many as 130 students in a single classroom.
The most powerful weapon against war is education, said Malala at the UN today.
“So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons,” she concluded.