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“They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices…Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen, can change the world. Education is the only solution.” These were the words spoken by Malala Yousafzai in her address to the UN Youth Assembly on July 12th, falling on her 16th birthday. In October, a Taliban gunman boarded Malala’s school bus in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley and shot her in the head. The Taliban decided death was to be her consequence for campaigning on behalf of girls’ education. She survived, however, and in doing so has brought the issue of women’s education to the attention of the world.

After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the U.K. for treatment and recovery, and now resides in Birmingham, England. Her appearance at the UN headquarters was her first public speech since October’s incident. She told the UN that the Taliban’s attack did not change her aims or stop her ambitions as they hoped, but has rather made her more determined. Malala called on politicians to take urgent action to ensure every child has the right to an education. “I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists,” said Malala.

Aid agencies agree that girls’ access to education in Pakistan is a real concern. The country ranks among the lowest in terms of girls’ enrollment, government spending, and literacy. Malala explained she was fighting for the rights of women because “they are the ones who suffer the most”. Unesco and Save the Children released a report which found that 95% of the 28.5 million children who are not receiving a primary school education live in low and lower-middle income countries: 44% in sub-Saharan Africa, 19% in south and west Asia and 14% in the Arab states. Girls make up 55% of these children without education and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that comes with armed conflict.

Adnan Rasheed, a senior Pakistani Taliban leader, recently sent a letter to Malala in which he does not apologize, but says he wished the attack “had never happened”. Rasheed further suggests that all that the Taliban opposes is western education. Despite this claim, there are currently 1,000 closed schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan due to arson attacks and threats. The Taliban have long argued that only schools used as army bases are attacked, however schools have been shut down hundreds of miles from any Pakistani army presence.

According to Gordon Brown, a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education, in just the last few weeks alone 14 young women were killed when the bus carrying them from college was firebombed, a school principal was shot dead and his colleagues maimed in broad daylight at a prize giving ceremony held in the playground of an all-girls school in Karachi, and a teacher was gunned down in front of her son while driving to teach at an all-female college.

Illiteracy, particularly among girls, will hold back Pakistan’s development efforts if current education trends continue. It is also known that young people denied an education fall prey to extremist propaganda. Following the attack, Malala set up the ‘Malala Fund’, and presented a petition which included more than three million signatures to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, demanding education for all. The Malala Fund launches in the fall of 2013, and will focus on helping girls go to school and raise their voices for the right to education. Donations to the Malala Fund can be made at https://www.stayclassy.org/checkout/donation?eid=25976.

Malala has shown millions of young girls that it is possible to stand up to the Taliban. Young people are insisting that education is a universal right. Malala has sparked a revolution and a modern civil rights struggle is now underway.

– Ali Warlich
Sources: BBC, CNN, The Malala Fund, BBC