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Malala: ‘Education transforms lives, communities, and countries’

She’s an author, producer, and the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner. She’s also an icon, an advocate, and a leader. Her charity, The Malala Fund, campaigns for all girls to have the right to quality education.  

However, great leaders don’t stand alone, they need support, guidance, and mentorship.

For Malala her greatest supporters have always been her parents. In particular, her father not only advocated for her education, but also encouraged her to be curious, to think for herself, and, most importantly, stand up for what she believes in.

130 million girls out of education

However, far too many girls don’t have this type of support. Right now the gut-wrenching fact is that 130 million girls don’t have access to or aren’t allowed to pursue an education. And of the lucky ones who are, there’s little guarantee they will get the right kind of education or guidance to expand their future options.

”Many millions of girls who are in school are not receiving quality education that empowers them, that prepares them for the future jobs,” says Malala. “So we have two issues. One is the lack of education, but then the second one is quality of education.”

Of course, this isn’t just an ethical issue, it’s also about economics. “Girls not being educated means the world loses up to $1 trillion in the global economy,” says Malala. “But if we give girls 12 years of education, that adds up to $30 trillion to the global economy.”

Reducing the likelihood of war

There are also powerful multiplier effects of girls’ education. “When we invest in girls' education, we improve our economies, we reduce the likelihood of war, as well as poverty, and we create a more sustainable and better future for ourselves.”

The positive effects don’t stop there: “Educating girls also empowers them as individuals, independent financially, and to know more about their rights, to be an active participant in, in society to take care of themselves, their health, but also of their families as well.”

Lack of education would be ‘unimaginable’

For Malala, her education was a hard-won right, that she can’t imagine now being without. “When I was 11 years old and could not go to school, I imagined, for a second, what if nothing had changed, what if the Taliban was still there and the school ban had continued… What would my life have been like?

“This is something completely unimaginable for me,” she says with a shudder.

The gift of lifelong learning

She explains that education helps build a love of learning and unlocks the joy of curiosity. “Education is not just limited to learning in a school or university. Education becomes part of your life. And you learn that you must continue learning throughout your life. It is not a one-time thing. You don't leave it behind when you leave your university building – you carry that passion for learning with you.”

“Education can transform lives, communities, and countries.” 

Education through the pandemic

Malala’s campaigning has effected worldwide change. For example, in Pakistan, the Malala Fund has helped provide free quality education to former domestic laborers; educational programming and psycho-social support at an internally displaced people's camp; and school supplies and repairs to damaged classrooms.

However, the added strain of the pandemic has not made her advocacy work any easier. “The pandemic was a big learning point for me. We conducted research at Malala fund, which was based on the Ebola crisis. We found that 20 million more girls may never return to school once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.”

Because these girls are restricted to their homes, they’re more likely to be forced into marriages and to become financial supporters of their family. “I realized that progress is not guaranteed,” she says. “You have to work even harder to ensure that girls remain in schools and don’t miss out.”

Malala’s team at the Malala Fund concentrated on projects that were focused on learning during COVID to ensure these girls had digital solutions to carry on learning throughout the crisis.

They also had to push countries and leaders to guarantee that girls remain at school. “They must take gender into account when drafting and writing their back-to-school policies.

“If you do not push for policies that are more gender sensitive then these issues are often ignored. Then the gap even widens and we see more and more girls dropping out of school.”

Selling school books for sweets

Unfortunately, Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, was one of the many millions of girls who did just that and missed out on her education.

“My mum was six years old when she sold her books from school. She got some candies in return,” says Malala. “She never went to school and nobody asked her why she was not in school because girls' education was not important at her time in her village.

“When my dad and I started activism for girls, I was also learning,” she says. “I'm one of the first girls in my family to complete her education at the university level.”

Inspired by her daughter, Toor Pekai decided to restart her education. The family had just moved to the UK and she didn’t speak English. “She was struggling to order a taxi for herself or book a doctor's appointment. Even small things like shopping for groceries or going to a parents- teachers meeting at school. Things we take for granted.

Now fluent in English, she’s turned to math. “She loves it and hopes to expand into other subjects as well.”

“At the moment that I love the most is when my mum is doing her homework and I'm sitting right beside her, helping with her homework”

In a heartwarming role reversal, it’s now Malala’s turn to support and advocate for her mother. “The moment that I love the most is when my mum is doing her homework and I'm sitting right beside her, helping with her homework. In many houses, it's mum helping her daughter, but in my house, it's daughter helping her mother. And that is such a precious moment for me.”

Annoying siblings

It’s not just her mother who’s prioritizing education. Malala’s younger brother is now 17 and looking at universities. “He was 8 when we moved and adapted very quickly to life in the UK,” says Malala. “But now he’s curious about Pakistan, his culture, and our extended family.”

Her other brother is already at university, studying philosophy and religious studies. “We still fight,” she laughs. “They're always the same, pretty annoying. But I'm their big sister and I take care of them and I tolerate them. I try to guide them and tell them how to behave. But they're brothers, they're like, whatever sister says, don't listen to her!”

What makes a good educational system great?

“I think the idea of a great education system is still open to exploration,” says Malala. “It's a dynamic concept because it changes with time as well.

“The education that I was receiving in Pakistan had its own pros and cons, and I remember being very focused on maths and sciences and learning English.

“And then when I came to the UK I realized that in school, they also teach physical education and cooking and textiles. It sort of shocked me. I was like, what, these are also subjects that could be taught in school? And I realized that it’s important to think about the context of what skills will be needed in the future.”

“One way you know you’ve succeeded in education is when you’ve given children the tools to think critically.”

It’s an important point. A great education system should also help to empower our children and give them skills for everyday life, such as financial awareness. “We want to prepare children for future jobs and future roles,” she says. “But it's not just limited to learning maths and science – it’s important to teach social values, your rights, as well as how to stay safe and protect yourself.”

Without guidance, most of us would not have known how to open a bank account, organize a mortgage, or where to turn when we face any of the many challenges in life. “These really important topics that we must ensure that children know about and have the skills to tackle these problems when they occur,” she says.

There's still a lot to work on when it comes to quality of education, says Malala. “It’s a work in progress,” she says. “But one way you know you’ve succeeded is when you’ve given children that passion for learning throughout life. And given them the tools to think critically.

“A great education system not only gives you the content to learn but the tools and skills too. That means how you process information, how to question the information that you are processing, you ask: is it credible? Who is speaking to you? Why should you trust that? And if they’re making plausible arguments or not.

Critical thinking, Malala says, is crucial to the education experience.

Especially right now. “We’re surrounded by so much information. And we know that that information is sometimes misinformation. Fake news isn’t going away. But if we are better educated, it helps to protect us from harmful and false information.”

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