“He Named Me Malala”: Educate Girls to Change the World
“I tell my story not because it is unique but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”
— Malala Yousafzai in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech
The recently released film He Named Me Malala highlights the moving journey and activism of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. Her inspiring story is familiar to most of us. Yousafzai’s father was a teacher and founder of a school, and she was an eager learner. When opportunities for girls’ education were suppressed by the Taliban, Yousafzai spoke out and was the subject of threats. Tragically, the threats became a reality in 2012 when she was shot in the head, and several of her classmates were wounded. After a long recovery in England, Yousafzai continues her advocacy for girls’ education. She received the unprecedented honor of being the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2014.
The film’s release comes at a critical juncture in the conversation about global education — and girls’ education in particular.
2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the historic U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing and the target for achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. “Achieving universal primary education and to promote gender equality” and “eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005 and at all levels by 2015” were two of those goals. There have been major improvements in access to primary education for boys and girls, as reported by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization:
- Between 2000 and 2015, the number of girls for every 100 boys has risen from 92 to 97 in primary education and from 91 to 97 in secondary education.
- There are 84 million fewer children and adolescents who are out of school since 2000, including 52 million fewer girls who are out of school.
- The number of countries that have achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary education from 2000 to 2015 has increased from 36 to 62.
These are definitely reasons to celebrate, but secondary education for girls, the quest for which Yousafzai almost gave her life, is trailing behind. First lady Michelle Obama, in launching the Let Girls Learn education initiative, noted that “62 million girls around the world are not in school. Half of them are adolescents. We know that countries with more girls in secondary school tend to have lower maternal mortality rates, lower infant mortality rates, lower rates of HIV/AIDS, and better child nutrition.”
“I don’t want to be thought of as the girl who was shot by the Taliban but the girl who fought for education. This is the cause to which I want to devote my life.”
— Malala Yousafzai
A recent study by the Brookings Institution also notes that the average girls’ enrollment rate in secondary school in the poorest countries is 25.9 percent, compared with 90 percent in high-income countries, and the gender gap in education is much more pronounced in Africa, Southeast Asia, and conflict-affected parts of the Middle East than elsewhere.
There are many factors that impact girls’ access to secondary education, including costs, social and cultural restrictions, early and forced marriage, early childbearing, girls’ self-confidence, school and gender-based violence, war and crisis situations, and girls’ household work. These factors have gained increasing attention as barriers to economic growth and poverty reduction. Multiple studies make the link between poverty and gender-based inequality and discrimination and agree on the economic benefits of education and empowering women and girls.
In order to continue to address many of the challenges that inhibit girls’ access to education, the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals will hold governments accountable for meeting these and other targets:
- Ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable, and quality primary and secondary education.
- Ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education.
- Eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and children in vulnerable situations.
Our world needs girls and young women to reap the full benefits from education to lay the successful groundwork for the rest of their lives. Through empowering global leaders, providing critical access to educational funding, supporting U.N. initiatives, and advocating in the global arena, AAUW knows that putting education and gender equality at the heart of development initiatives is key to transforming lives, communities, and countries.
We learn from the film that Yousafzai’s father named her Malala in honor of a Pashtun heroine named Malalai. Malala symbolizes the power of raising your voice to fight injustice because, in Yousafzai’s own words, “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”