Gunmen stormed a school bus last Tuesday and shot a 14-year-old girl in the head. Her crime? Getting an education.
This seems almost inconceivable to those of us blessed to live in America, but in some areas of the globe, girls must risk their lives to get a basic education.
Malala Yousafzai became a prominent voice for girls’ education in Pakistan after the Taliban seized control of her native Swat – once a tourist destination renowned for its scenery, culture and open-mindedness – and forced an end to education for women and girls. She brought insight to a tragic situation as the anonymous author of a blog for the BBC about her struggle for education and the fear of living under Taliban rule. In one entry, she wrote about girls sneaking off to class, wearing regular clothes instead of their school uniforms and hiding their books under their robes.
The blog received international attention and Malala became an outspoken advocate for children’s rights. She was 11.
The Pakistani Army has since reclaimed Swat, clearing out the Taliban, and now maintains control over the region. But last Tuesday’s attack was one of several in recent months, and there are fears the Taliban could be regaining momentum in the area.
The Taliban loudly claimed “credit” for the attack, saying they targeted Malala because, “She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.” It is evidence of the cowardice, impotence and ignorance of the Taliban that a 14-year-old child could pose such an immense threat. But that is the nature of truth, equality, and democratic ideals – they shed light in the corners of the world that people like the Taliban wish to keep in darkness.
Malala Yousafzai puts a human face on the grim education statistics in developing countries. (The expected length of schooling for girls in Pakistan is six years. In Niger it is five, and in Somalia it is two.) Her bravery and struggle alone should compel us to work for greater inclusion of women and girls in education.
But there is also the practical consideration that the health of these countries, both socially and economically, depends on an educated female populace. There is no developed country on Earth that does not have full gender equality – access to education, enfranchisement, civil liberties; it is an essential component of being a first-world nation.
Women make up half the world’s population. Excluding them from participation in everyday life prevents them from contributing to the strength of the economy, by rendering them unable to act as full consumers and depriving the workforce of 50 percent of its talent pool. Uneducated women are also less healthy, have more children at a younger age – who are also less healthy than their educated counterparts – and are less likely to keep their children in school, creating a cycle of poverty that is virtually unbreakable.
According to a recent working paper by the World Bank, “Closing the inactivity rate between girls and boys would increase gross domestic product by up to 5.4 percent.”
The study also found a number of other benefits to female education. For instance, one year of schooling for a mother reduces child mortality by around 10 percent. Each additional year of schooling boosts long-run growth by an estimated 0.58 percent annually. Returns on girls’ education in developing countries generally outstrip both those in developed countries and those for boys (primary education boosts girls’ earnings by an estimated 5 to 15 percent over a lifetime; for boys that number is 4 to 8 percent). And increasing the share of women with secondary education by a mere 1 percent raises per capita income by 0.3 percentage points.
The paper concurs with the conclusion of another study: “societies that have a preference for not investing in girls pay a price for it in terms of slower growth and reduced income.”
Malala Yousafzai is just one of 600 million girls living in developing countries. Her bravery and eloquence at such a young age has brought international attention to a global problem. We can only hope that attention will stay focused. Malala had the courage to stand up to the Taliban; the rest of the world should have the courage to stand up for what is right.
This column was written by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.