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  • Focus on Gender: Malala’s fame brings real progress

United Nations Information Centres

Speed read

  • Despite a backlash in Pakistan, Malala’s message is getting through

  • Her fame has helped to raise funds to promote girls’ education

  • Malala has made a measurable difference, but more voices are needed

Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month, despite predictions that she might. [1] In some ways, this hardly matters: she has already proven her media magnetism and her message championing schooling for girls is carrying on. But is this message making any difference?

In 2008, Malala, then a ten-year-old girl from the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan, publicly asked: “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” [2] Her speech at a local press club was picked up by media channels across the region and started her journey as an ardent promoter of girls’ education.

This journey has taken her from writing an anonymous blog, to becoming the subject of a documentary, to being shot in the head by the Taliban. After prominent TV interviews and being filmed chatting with world leaders, her message had gone viral.

“I want to help those children who are out of school,” Malala told the World Bank’s president earlier this month at an event followed live on Twitter. [3]
But can the Malala media phenomenon get more girls into school?

“How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”

Malala Yousafzai

Perhaps not everywhere. In Pakistan, there has been a backlash. Malala now lives in the United Kingdom, but girls in Pakistan may be worse off than before she spoke out.

The Taliban is using violent intimidation in the region to discourage their education. One young girl, Atiya Arshad, was shot while waiting to receive a school prize in Karachi. She is now in a wheelchair. Unlike Malala, Atiya was not flown to the United Kingdom or given any financial support for her treatment.

Tweets from Pakistan have accused Malala of being a CIA agent, of never being shot or of being a US ploy to distract attention from the civilian casualties caused by drone attacks on the Pakistani Taliban.

Yet despite this, Malala’s fame has helped the world refocus on the need to educate every single girl. And this is yielding measurable results. She has established the Malala Fund, which promotes girls’ right to education. Celebrities and organisations are pouring cash into it. Under the slogan “I am Malala”, a UN petition demanding that all children attend school by 2015 contributed to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.

Malala’s detractors should look at these outcomes before they draw their conclusions. According to a 2010 UN report, a child born to a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to survive past the age of five than a child born to a mother who can’t. [4] Yet women still represent two-thirds of all illiterate adults.

“I believe in the power of the voice of women,” Malala has said. [5] She has certainly demonstrated this power. Now let there be more Malalas.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.

References

[1] BBC Winner of Nobel Peace Prize set to be announced (bbc.co.uk, 11 October 2013)
[2] Westhead, R. Brave defiance in Pakistan's Swat Valley (thestar.com, 26 October 2009)
[3] World Bank A Conversation with Malala Yousafzai (World Bank, video posted 11 October 2013)
[4] UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Education Counts: Towards the Millennium Development Goals (UNESCO, September 2010)
[5] World Bank World Bank / Malala Education (Unifeed, video posted 14 October 2013)