The Defenders

Malala Yousafzai

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”

Malala Yousafzai was born in the Swat district of Pakistan, a beautiful river valley with pristine forests. Malala was educated by her father Ziauddin, a poet and the owner of several private schools. She wanted to become a doctor, but her father thought she should go into politics instead.

In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban, a terrorist group,began fighting the government for control of Swat. They replaced the existing secular (non-religious)laws with more restrictive religious laws, attacking those who disobeyed and executing policemen who refused to cooperate. In December 2008, they declared girls would no longer be allowed to go to school. They began segregating, or dividing, schools that allowed both boys and girls. The Taliban also bombed several all-girl school buildings.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) contacted Ziauddin and asked if he knew of any students who could blog about their experiences. They hoped Ziauddin could find young people who would share how the conflict in Swat was affecting them, but everyone he contacted refused to blog, saying it was too dangerous to speak against the Taliban. Finally, Ziauddin asked his daughter Malala, who was only 11 at the time, if she would be willing to take that risk. She was.

Originally posting under the pseudonym, or fake name, Gul Makai, Malala shared her stories and commentary about life under the Taliban. After several months, inspired by her father’s pro-education activism, Malala eventually revealed her real name and began openly advocating that girls have the same human right to an education as boys. She became a powerful voice for education in her country, even convincing Pakistan’s prime minister to expand women’s education in Swat.

Her international fame came with increased danger. In the summer of 2012, the leaders of the Taliban plottedto assassinate her. On October 9, 2012, a masked gunman boarded a bus full of girls on their way home from school. The girls, who had been singing songs, were frozen with fear, reminded of the Taliban executions from a few short years before. The man demanded Malala identify herself, or he would kill everyone on the bus.

When she madeher identity known, Malala was shot from just a few feet away, the bullet passing through her head and into her neck and shoulder. Because he thought she would not survive her wounds, the gunman fled. Still alive, Malala was rushed to the hospital, where her father met her. Heheld her hand, and she told him with difficulty, “Don’t worry, Baba, I’m going to be fine and victory will be ours,” before falling into a coma.

The best doctors around the world offered to treat Malala. After initial treatment in Pakistan, she was flown to Germany and then the United Kingdom. After extensive brain surgery, she came out of her coma on October 17. By January 2013, she was well enough to go home, and by March, she had even returned to school.

The Taliban tried to silence Malala and others like her, but their violence only caused people to rally behind Malala. In the years since the assassination attempt, she has won the Nobel Peace Prize, visited world leaders, and founded the Malala Fund, which calls on world leaders to invest in “books,not bullets.” She was accepted to the University of Oxford in August 2017.

Why do girls need education?

All children, regardless of race, gender, or nationality have the right to an education. In the United States, this right might be taken for granted, but there are 70 million children worldwide who have no access to any education. Often even those who do receive some level of education still end up illiterate, or unable to read or write. There are many reasons girls are denied access to education, including cultural norms, wars and conflicts, child marriage, tuition costs, distance from schools, health issues, and child labor. According to the UN, some countries lose over $1billion a year because they do not educate girls to the same level as boys.

Why should we care about universal education? In many ways, a proper education is the best way to fight poverty in a country and support economic growth. More educated populations are less likely to go to war. Education also directly reduces an individual’s likelihood to join extremist or terrorist groups.

These benefits are even greater for girls and women. The children of educated mothers are twice as likely to survive to age 5. Educated women farmers produce more food, and the decline in worldwide malnutrition between 1970 and 1995 can be attributed to the education of female farmers. Educating women also helps halt the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV.

Sometimes, people criticize the universal right to education by arguing that it is better for some children to work rather than to learn. There is no evidence to support this argument, and plenty of evidence to contradict it. Supporting universal education is not only the right thing to do, it’s a practical way of making people’s lives better.

Want to join the fight for universal education?

  • Read about the Malala Fund and what you can do to support its work here.
  • Read about literacy rates in the United States here.
  • Work with school administrators, teachers, and fellow students to identify students at risk of dropping out and work with the local community to address these students’ needs.
  • Find a volunteer organization that focuses on helping students who are not reading at their grade level. If no such organization exists in your school district, consider starting one.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.