I had the honor of meeting Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and her father this past summer, during their visit to the United States. Malala became an internationally-known activist, after surviving being shot in the head when the Taliban attacked her for speaking up in support of girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Last week at CFR, I screened the powerful new film about Malala and her fight for girls’ education, “He Named Me Malala,” and hosted Meighan Stone, the president of the Malala Fund, to discuss the fund’s work.
Like the famous civil rights leader Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat and move to back of the bus during an era of racial segregation in the United States, Malala refused to be silenced by Taliban leaders who enforced a harsh code of gender discrimination against women and girls. As Malala stated in a speech she gave at the United Nations Youth Assembly, “There’s a moment when you have to decide whether to be silent or stand up.” Malala decided to stand up and fight. Indeed, in 2013, a year after the attack, Malala and her father began the Malala Fund, an organization that works to empower girls and advance their access to education.
As I have written before, educating girls has clear benefits, first and foremost for girls themselves, but also for a variety of development indicators, from decreasing poverty to reducing extremism. For decades, research has demonstrated that girls’ education is correlated with increased female participation and productivity in the labor market and growing economies. Moreover, educated girls are more likely to marry later, have smaller families, and have reduced incidences of HIV/AIDS. Thus, not only are these benefits for the girls themselves, but later for their own children, who are then more likely to be healthy and productive.
Educating girls has the power to mitigate those factors—including oversized youth populations, mass poverty, and limited economic opportunity—that create the environments where extremism tends to thrive. Given the clear benefits of girls’ education, the rise in attacks on girls’ schools and female students and teachers—from the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria—is particularly worrisome. That’s why, in her UN speech, Malala said, “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”
The Malala Fund works to support various education programs in a number of countries and advocates for policies that advance girls’ access to education. The work of the fund reflects the refrain from Malala’s UN speech: “One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.” In 2013, the organization provided former girl domestic laborers with free education in Pakistan. The Malala Fund has also supported training in information technology in Kenya; funded a program in Sierra Leone to support the educational needs of girls affected by the Ebola crisis; and provided funding for educational programs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. In Nigeria, the Malala Fund has provided kidnapped girls, who escaped from Boko Haram, with counseling services and full scholarships to secondary school as well as funds to the Nigerian Centre for Girls’ Education. On a trip to Nigeria in 2014, Malala met with parents of the abducted girls and with the President of Nigeria at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, to press his government to do more to secure their release. The fund also has a social action and advocacy campaign, resources for students, and discussion guides and curriculum based on the film.
Malala says she was an ordinary girl born to extraordinary parents in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. While her father named her “Malala,” she made herself Malala. At age 11, she began to blog anonymously about her experience living under the Taliban for the BBC and eventually, demonstrating remarkable courage, she came out publicly to object to their ban on girls’ education. In response, the Taliban shot her, which she miraculously survived. After a long recovery process, rather than express resentment, Malala speaks of “the importance of light when we see darkness.” Her story, her struggle, and her success have helped bring girls’ education to the forefront of development and foreign policy more broadly.
Last year, the Obama Administration launched Let Girls Learn, which focuses on community-based programs to eliminate the barriers to education that adolescent girls face. But there is more the United States, other governments, and international institutions can do. International education has been discussed as part of the foreign policy agenda in recent years. In fact, one of President Obama’s 2008 campaign promises was to create a global education fund. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also spoke out in favor of investing in education abroad, writing in Foreign Affairs, “Education has immeasurable power to promote growth and stability around the world. Educating girls and integrating them into the labor force is especially critical to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
Yet the promised increases in funding for education abroad have not yet materialized. In both 2011 and 2013, the House of Representatives introduced the Education for All Act, a bill that would increase U.S. aid for education to $3 billion per year. But the bill has never passed, and congressional appropriations for education abroad has been unsteady.
The United States should support education—specifically girls’ education—abroad (and, of course, at home) not only to empower and benefit girls around the world, but also to reduce poverty and improve stability in strategic regions and to enhance U.S. national security interests.