Malala’s fight for girls’ education

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban last year, has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. We congratulate Malala and welcome the award as an effort to promote schooling for the huge number of children worldwide who are deprived of education opportunities.

In her speech at the Nov. 20 award ceremony in Strasbourg, France, Malala pointed to the plight of as many as 57 million children around the world who are denied opportunities to go to school. Those children “do not want an iPhone, a PlayStation or chocolate. They just want a book and a pen,” she said.

She urged the Western world to see beyond their borders “to the suffering countries where people are still deprived of their basic rights, their freedom of thought is suppressed, freedom of speech is enchained.” Many children in those countries “have no food to eat, no water to drink, and children are starving for education,” she said.

Malala, who fought against a Taliban ban on education for girls in her native town in the Swat District of Pakistan, was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen while she was returning from school in October 2012. She recovered from the near-fatal assault in Britain, where she was flown for treatment. She resettled there with her family and now campaigns for girls’ education.

In her address to the United Nations in July, she stressed the importance of education to support countries suffering from terrorism. Instead of sending weapons and tanks to those countries, send books and pens, she said.

Despite the global acclaim for her activities that have won her many other international awards on human rights, Malala’s achievements have not been welcomed by everybody in her native Pakistan. Her detractors reportedly charge that Malala is being used in a campaign to emphasize the negative aspects of the country, including terrorism, or that the Western show of respect for her heroic activism is an act of hypocrisy that ignores the suffering of many civilian victims of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Pakistani private schools have banned Malala’s autobiography “I Am Malala,” published in October, from their libraries because of its “anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam content.”

According to UNESCO, Pakistan has the world’s second highest number of children out of school — 5.1 million in 2010 — and girls make up two-thirds of these children. The situation is most dire in rural areas, where education for girls is all too often opposed on religious grounds. We urge Islamabad to strive to ensure that all Pakistani children have an opportunity to receive an education.