If the Nobel Peace Prize committee had been starting their deliberations this week rather than announcing their winner, a 14-year-old girl from Pakistan would have been on the list as a candidate for the top global honour.But today Malala Yousafzai is fighting for her life because she has spent her last three years fighting for every girl’s right to a place at school.
In dignified ceremonies seen on TV screens across the world yesterday, the people of Pakistan held a day of prayer for Malala. Shot by the Taliban, who called girls’ education an obscenity, she has dared to stand up for the rights of girls. She is now an icon of courage and hope, the worldwide symbol for the right of every child everywhere to education.
Next Tuesday in Paris we will launch the Unesco Global Monitoring Report charting worldwide progress in getting children to school. Parents everywhere will be shocked to find that 61 million children will not be going to school on that day or any other day, 32 million of them girls.
Five million of the world’s out-of-school children are in Pakistan and in many countries instead of progress, out-of-school numbers are getting worse as international aid budgets fall and charity donations fail to bridge the gap.
The shooting of Malala has however awakened the world to the scandal of the neglected 61 million - and the world is finally waking up to the need for urgent action. A series of offers of assistance have already come in to help deliver security and schooling for girls in Pakistan as part of a groundswell of global support for Malala.
Chairman of the American Pakistan Foundation, Asad Jamal, has offered to provide support for both security and schooling for Pakistani girls. Pakistan-born educationalists in America have said that they will finance scholarships to guarantee education to Pakistani girls. The charity Room to Read has also pledged to expand its pioneering work on girls’ education into the country.
An education delegation will come to Pakistan next month for high level talks with President Zardari on how to get Pakistan’s five million out-of-school children into education. The delegation will be accompanied by prominent education experts urging Pakistan’s leaders to see the shooting of Malala as a catalyst to speed up education reforms. The UN initiative Education First, led by Ban Ki-moon and launched in New York last month, will throw its full weight behind an effort to achieve a step-change in Pakistan’s educational performance.
I thank the president for meeting me in New York and now for his statesmanship in inviting me and a delegation to help him achieve his laudable aim of a quality education for every child.
We need to clamp down on child labour, child marriage, and child soldiers worldwide. Today 10 million girls are not at school because at an all too young age they have become child brides. 15 million boys and girls under 14 are not in education because they are full time labourers, many working in dangerous hazardous occupations with no pay. Many millions more are not at school because there are simply no schools and no teachers near at hand. Round the world an extra two million teachers need to be trained up to give girls and boys the education they deserve.
In recent weeks I have been in talks not only with President Zardari, but with Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, all of whom wish to see universal education quickly. I have offered them global assistance in support of radical action on improving education in Pakistan. I have talked to the president about expanding the cash support scheme organised by the Benazir Income Support Programme that incentivises families to get their children, especially their daughters, to school. We also discussed the expansion of the UK-supported project in Punjab that has already sent an additional one million children to school by boosting teacher quality, tackling teacher absenteeism and insisting upon proper administration.
Under the Education First initiative, delegations to countries from Pakistan to Nigeria will be followed by a UN-World Bank summit in April in Washington DC. At that point we will examine how we can finance and incentivise country-generated plans to deliver universal schooling by 2015.
With this momentum building, as UN special envoy I am determined to harness private, public and voluntary support. No country that wishes to achieve education for all should be prevented from doing so through lack of funds.
Parents and pupils in Pakistan who were part of the day of prayer for Malala know the power of education to change lives. They know education is the most important single means by which both individuals and countries will be empowered and enriched. My aim is that governments, international non-governmental organisations and businesses unite to agree practical proposals to turn the promise of universal education into reality.
Now that Pakistan’s girl of courage, Malala, has in her suffering become the representative of millions of forgotten children and a catalyst for all their hopes, we must turn earnest goodwill into purposive action - and convert the desire and demand of children everywhere for schooling into new schools, classrooms, teachers and books.
To show your solidarity with Malala and support the campaign to get all girls and boys into school, visit www.educationenvoy.org and sign up now.
The writer is former prime minister of the UK and UN special envoy for global education