Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel peace laureate, activist extraordinaire and author of international bestsellers, was in Lahore this week to promote school-aged girls’ access to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education and to highlight her work with the Oxford Pakistan Programme, which aims to bridge Oxford and Pakistan’s academic communities. In this exclusive interview, she talked to The News on Sunday about girls’ education, her vision for Malala Fund, how she navigates public reactions to her opinions and how she deals with stereotypes about this region in the West. Excerpts:
The News on Sunday (TNS): The Malala Fund has invested around $9.6 million in local organisations in Pakistan that are focused on advocating better education for girls. What has been the impact until now?
Malala Yusafzai (MY): When we first started Malala Fund, I knew that I had to start from Pakistan. This is where I first started my activism, which was for my own education when the Taliban banned girls from schools in the Swat Valley, but also for other girls. Pakistan also comes second after Nigeria in the number of children out of school. It was for these reasons that Pakistan was an urgent case for us. When we thought about the best ways to invest in education, we realised that we had to support local organisations already working for girls’ education, improving the quality of education and training female teachers - the organisations doing advocacy and working for change in policies. That has been our model. We support some schools directly, ensuring that girls in some of the most difficult parts of this country can have the facilities required for quality education.
We recently did a public-private partnership with the federal government, where we launched the STEAM initiative. In this partnership, we are working to transform the quality of education in 13,000 schools and hope that girls and children will have access to quality content in their schools, and will be able to have more education in the sciences, mathematics and other fields. [We want] to make sure that these schools give the children something they can use for their careers and contribute to this country.
Recently, I partnered with Oxford University to launch the OPP to support scholarships for Pakistani students who come from difficult backgrounds. I hope that through this programme, we will be able to give opportunities to more Pakistani students, especially girls, to study at the prestigious university. We also have a lecture series and other initiatives and support systems to make sure that students have more access to knowledge about the culture and history of Pakistan and South Asia and that they hear from more academics from their country. We hope to build this further, and we hope that this goes on.
TNS: Are you focused on schools in any specific regions in the country?
MY: These are government schools, located across Pakistan, and this is just one programme that we are doing with the government. We are also supporting dozens of activists working in different parts of Pakistan. Some of them are advocating to change policies to make them more inclusive for girls. Some are working with children directly by providing content through digital devices. Some are impacting children indirectly through policy changes. We are exploring the ways to ensure that education is accessible to girls in every manner.
TNS: Malala Fund also operates in some other countries with similar issues as Pakistan. What are some of the lessons you have learnt while working there that can be useful in Pakistan?
MY: The Fund works in nine countries, including Brazil, India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. In all these countries, we support local education activists for research work, advocacy to change policies and provide education through technology. We bring activists from all these countries together, and they sit down with one another for a few days to exchange ideas – for example, what is working in their country, and what is not. They talk about the barriers girls face that are unique to their countries, but at the same time, about issues that are common to all of these countries, such as the quality of education or teaching. This has helped them learn more about advocacy and how to make it more effective. A unique thing about this network of activists is that all these organisations have been working individually. Through this network, they can also do advocacy together.
Our partners in Afghanistan were able to work with the government, which was possible only because they were doing that collectively. They have done collective advocacy in Brazil to pass legislation, make basic education a priority, and release funding for that. They have worked in some states in Nigeria, including the Kaduna state, and this collective activism can be effective in advocacy for education.
TNS: Pakistan is one of the countries with the lowest allocations for education. It is also a country where around 32 percent of children are out of school. What practical steps can be taken for the situation to improve?
MY: When we look at the global crises, including [the impact on] health and economics, we know that climate change, extreme poverty, gender equality, wars and conflict directly impact children. These issues cause a huge drop-out from school and prevent progress in the education sector. On the other hand, when you look at long-term sustainable solutions to many of these problems, education is always on the list, especially girls’ education because it is a key factor in bringing about gender equality, which then contributes to creating a more resilient economy and ensuring that we address some of these barriers.
I hope that national leaders acknowledge the power that education has in transforming the country. I hope that in Pakistan, our leaders realise that in order to make our dream of a more prosperous, equal and sustainable Pakistan come true, we have to invest in the education of our children. We must ensure that girls are not left behind because their education is as important as anyone else’s. I hope that leaders start with the work on a policy level and ensure that they allocate enough of the GDP and budget percentage towards education; that is the start. But they should also make sure that they don’t just make commitments but also implement those pledges and actually work on executing them.
They should be more open to working with local activists, civil society and stakeholders to ensure that they are addressing the problems in every community that prevents children, especially girls, from accessing schools. There is also the [issue of] quality of education in schools. I hope that our education ministry will prioritise the quality of education in the schools we have. We have to ensure that our children have access to science subjects, climate education and gender education. Such content can prepare them for their future. They can also invest in the quality of teaching, especially female teachers. Many schools lack quality female teachers, which could be one of the reasons girls are not allowed in schools. There are also issues on a cultural level. Even where schools exist, some communities may not allow their girls to attend them. So it is really [about] engaging with those communities and highlighting that education is important from the context of religion and culture. It is part of our religion that we seek knowledge. It is compulsory for us. We should not remain ignorant. It is the right of every man and woman.
When they talk about extremism in Pakistan… I say you should look at me… and at other women and other activists, who are raising their voices for human rights and who are actually fighting for a more inclusive and equal society.
If Pakistan is to go forward, excel in the fields of technology and make sure that we fight against some of the challenges, including climate change or extreme poverty, we have to invest in the education of our future generations; because they are going to be the policymakers of tomorrow. They will be the engineers, doctors and scientists of tomorrow. So, we need to think about what we are producing in this country in the coming 30 or 40 years.
TNS: You recently addressed a rally in London, where you called for the UK government to hold a global summit on women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan. How hopeful are you of the world leaders coming together to address the plight of Afghan women and girls?
MY: I try to remain hopeful for the women and girls in Afghanistan, partly because of the activism that Afghan women are doing right now. They are not giving up. They are on the streets chanting for their rights, and girls are crying for their right to education. That is something that gives me hope. That no one wants to remain silent. But we also need to look at the response from world leaders, which is often limited to statements of condemnation or vague commitments. We need to see more in action, and I hope that leaders make sure that they make no compromise on women’s rights, [or] on the girls’ rights for education. I hope that they prioritise the safety and security of women. And we have to really work together with the Afghan women. You have to engage them in the conversations you are having about their futures. If you don’t know what to do, just listen to Afghan women and girls.
TNS: Despite challenging ground realities, there are certain stereotypes regarding this region in the West. Have you ever felt that stereotyping can be a hurdle in conversations about this region? How have you dealt with that?
MY: Unfortunately, there are some stereotypes about Pakistan. When they talk about extremism in Pakistan or terrorism in Pakistan or extremist ideology in Pakistan, I present myself as a proud Pakistani. I say that you should look at me, and you should look at other women and other activists who are raising their voices for human rights and who are actually fighting for a more inclusive and equal society. Their work is important not just for Pakistan but for gender equality and human rights worldwide. I also say that gender equality is a global issue. We talk about gender equality in Pakistan, but it is not limited to Pakistan. Human rights for women are violated in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and even America. So it is a global issue, and when we talk about it, it is not really good to compare one country that is doing slightly better to the other because, to be honest, most countries are not doing a good job [regarding gender rights]. It is about [raising] a collective voice for gender equality for women in every corner of the world.
TNS: When you talk about action, it sometimes involves critiquing those in power or who are influential. Is it unfair to expect Malala always to be politically correct?
MY: I never worry about being politically correct [laughs]. I want to be correct. That is the most important thing to me. I want to make sure that I am not spreading misinformation and that we are always on the side of the truth. I believe in the work of the experts. We look at the research and we look at the available data. When I advocate for education, we look at what data tells us. When you invest in the quality of education for girls, it adds 30 trillion dollars to the world economy. We know that when girls are left behind in education, it can worsen [those] countries’ exposure to conflicts and wars, but investing in education prepares countries to fight against many of these problems. I think other than that, for me, it is about stories, so I tell stories. I tell my own story, and I give a platform to the stories of other girls. I am not their spokesperson because they have their own voice and can share their stories. I create those opportunities for them through which they can share their own stories. I have created a newsletter through Malala Fund, and girls from throughout the world share their stories on that platform. When I meet leaders, go to any conference, and talk about girls’ education, I ensure that girls are there with me in those rooms. When I spoke at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly this year, I talked about what’s happening for girls in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and in African countries. But I’m 25 now, I’m not 15 anymore [laughs]. I’m not a girl any longer. We need to have more girls’ voices on stage. So we invited a girl from Afghanistan, Sumaiyya, and girls from Ukraine and Uganda to speak there. One of the biggest issues is that women or girls are not included while we are talking about their lives and about how we can fix them. [We need to] ensure that the girls are in those rooms while decisions are being made about them.
TNS: There are some inherent biases against the West in our region. Is it natural for people here to be sceptical of work done by Malala Fund or similar organisations based abroad?
MY: Malala Fund is registered in four countries, the UK, the US, Pakistan and Nigeria. It belongs to all of these countries. It has a team in Pakistan, and the Pakistani team leads the work that we do in Pakistan. I am a Pakistani. My dad is a Pakistani. And we have Pakistani people in our offices in the UK and the US, so it is coming from education activists and experts in the field who want to see a change in girls’ education. If we have an office in the US, it doesn’t mean some conspiracy is happening there. That is not true.
TNS: There are some extreme reactions whenever you come out with an opinion. For instance a remark about marriage caused quite a storm. How do you navigate these situations?
MY: I think when you become a public figure, people interpret your statements in different ways. My comment about marriage came from me as a recent college graduate who was still unsure about what these institutions meant for her life. I knew that marriage had been a barrier to many girls in their education. So many girls are forced into marriage, and some are married as children. I was worried about many of these issues for different reasons. It never meant that I was telling people not to get married. Of course, I got married six months later.
TNS: Is it exhausting having to prove honest intentions and being constantly challenged?
MY: I think it is, unfortunately, a part of activism. Sometimes when these things happen, people who already understand you will be on your side. If they read the article, they will understand what I meant. Some people will never read the article and will just say that I am against marriage. I don’t know how to convince them other than to say, please go and read the article. I wrote again about this issue in detail. I would say that it is the right of every woman to question stereotypes, social norms and these institutions. We should have more honest and open conversations about these things because women make more compromises than men. We need to make sure that a woman is not worried about her future, her career, or her income. These are critical conversations because when a marriage happens, who has to give up more on these opportunities?
But I was lucky to find the right person, so no worries for me!
TNS: Social media these days is a hotbed of controversy and conflict. What’s your most memorable and not-so-memorable encounter on, say, Twitter?
MY: I really enjoyed the comments after my marriage with Assar! Some were really funny. I think social media can have harmful and negative content. As for me, I just avoid it if I come across [something negative], remembering that this does not represent everybody. In my personal life, I have rarely met anyone who has said anything negative or harmful to me. So, I sometimes look at what I have actually seen in the real world versus what I see on social media.
TNS: Tell me about the two best books that you read recently.
MY: I really liked A bigger picture by Vanessa Nakate and 50 words for Rain by Asha Lemmie.
TNS: What exciting stuff can we expect in 2023 from your production company, Extracurricular?
MY: We are working on our first feature film now, so I expect you’ll hear more about it next year. It features one of the only matriarchies in the world today, which is really exciting to me.
TNS: What are your education plans for yourself?
MY: I may consider a master’s programme in a few years. I’m interested in public policy, law and education.
TNS: Who’s your favourite cricketer these days?
MY: Right now, I am really enjoying Fatima Sana and Shaheen Shah Afridi’s game.
TNS: What would you say to girls in Pakistan who look up to you?
MY: Don’t wait for things to change on their own. You can be a leader in your community by starting conversations and campaigns about education, equality and inclusion for women and girls.
The interviewer is a staff member