Her bravery has created the practical inspiration that leads to real change.
The world is still celebrating the great news that came in with the New Year: 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai walked out of a Birmingham, England hospital on January 4th, nearly three months after the Taliban shot her in the head and neck during an assassination attempt in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Malala spoke out on behalf of her generation of girls having access to education — a position that was in sharp variance with Taliban extremists who tried to silence her.
Malala’s recovery, although far from complete, is being hailed as a miracle and her resilience is being celebrated far and wide. Malala’s courage has touched many, including pop-star Madonna, who dedicated a song to her in the days after the attack. She appeared at a concert with Malala’s name in large letters across her back.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown cited Malala as a hero and visited Pakistan to press for open access to education. “Can Pakistan convert its momentary desire to speak out in support of Malala into a long term commitment to getting its three million girls and five million children into school?” asked Brown, who is currently serving as the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education. Brown’s advocacy in support of Malala has led to calls to provide school access to all girls by 2015.
For more than two decades, the Child Labor Coalition has fought to protect children from the worst forms of child labor and Malala’s vision is central to that effort. “Access to education is one of the keys to reducing child labor—that’s what Malala is fighting for and that’s why her work has been so important,” noted CLC Co-Chair Sally Greenberg, who also serves as the Executive Director of the National Consumers League. According to the Global Campaign for Education, 53 percent of out-of-school youth worldwide are girls, and millions of girls face discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence.
In Pakistan, educational inequalities abound. The World Bank estimates that only 57 percent of girls and women can read and write, and in rural areas, only 22 percent of girls have completed primary-level schooling, compared with 47 percent of boys. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, nearly one third of Pakistani children aged 5-14 are deprived of schooling, and the country is making “no advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” Inspired by Malala’s case, however, the government of Pakistan has signaled its desire to provide equal access to education.
“The right to education is fundamental, and we stand with Malala and all those around the world who are working with us to make sure all children have equal access to high-quality public education,” said American Federation of Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, also a CLC co-chair, in the days following the attack.
Malala’s education advocacy began at age 11, when she blogged about Taliban atrocities in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. She wrote about the closing of schools for girls, which were a result of ultraconservative views—supported by the Taliban—toward women’s roles in Pakistani society. According to published reports, Malala felt forced to hide her school books and feared for her life, knowing that advocacy might make her a target of the Taliban. At age 11 she said, “All I want is an education. And I am afraid of no one.”
“Education is power, especially for girls. Malala knows this and has used her voice to advocate for others,” Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, reminded us at the time of the shooting. “The Taliban underestimated Malala from the beginning, but her power has already been unleashed. They cannot call it back. An educated girl becomes an informed woman able to make the best choices for her own well-being and that of her family; generations are impacted.”
Despite the unequal access to education faced by many girls around the world, there is some good news. According to the International Labor Organization’s latest statistics, the number of girls in child labor worldwide fell between 2004 and 2008 from 103 million to 88 million. “We need to keep that progress up. We need to keep Malala’s vision alive and provide girls with unfettered access to education,” said the CLC’s Greenberg.
Although Malala faces many challenges ahead, including additional surgeries, her recovery is nothing short of miraculous. Her heroism and advocacy for girls inspires us all and may indeed lead to lasting changes in educational access for girls and women.
The Child Labor Coalition is comprised of 28 organizations, representing consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. For more information, please call CLC Coordinator Reid Maki at (202) 207-2820 [firstname.lastname@example.org].