On February 8, 2013, Malala, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban because she spoke out in favor of girls’ education, was discharged from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. It was a miraculous recovery. During a five-hour procedure, surgeons had repaired the hole in her skull and covered it with a titanium plate that would not impair any of her cognitive functions. Then they inserted an electronic device in her left ear in order to restore her hearing. Her health restored, she could speak out once again about her right to an education.

young women
Young women at UN meeting Jakarta, 1994

Malala is right on target about how to help girls. According to the recent Millennium Development Report, 123 million youth aged 15 to 24 around the world lack basic reading and writing skills; 61 percent of them are young women.[1] Household poverty is the single most important factor keeping them out of school and preventing access to their most precious treasure. Why is education so important to girls’ capabilities? An education is the only wealth a woman can carry with her the rest of her life—one that a soldier or an abusive partner can never take away. Quality education can be a protective shield for children—or a potential way out when lives are filled with violence at home. It can give refugees a new start when they finally reach sanctuary.

Although an education doesn’t guarantee that girls will be able to face adversity, I submit that it should. We need to make sure that education does more than teach knowledge and job skills. It must also empower girls with determination and self-discipline or what my husband is fond of calling “grit.” With benefits for personal growth, why would parents decide not to educate girls?

Poverty and lack of teachers in poor countries are major obstacles, but there is also another growing threat—gender-based violence. What motivated Nigerian terrorists to abduct 200 schoolgirls in 2014 and threaten to sell them? The abuse of power in the name of religion, the terror that strikes not at governments, but the hearts of parents demanded a response. Demonstrations around the world continued for weeks, calling for a campaign to “bring back our girls.” And, while some parents protested, fear had cast its long shadow in girls’ hearts around the world. During those days, we were all reminded of how important it is to rally world opinion, to deepen our understanding of the plight of girls who want an education and to make governments accountable for their commitments at the UN such as in the Beijing Platform for Action.

I marveled at Malala’s courage, but I was most astounded by something else: her resolve to return to Pakistan and her refusal to be silenced. In her first interview after the shooting she said, “ I have the right to express my opinion. I have the right to an education.” She added that the prayers of thousands of supporters had given her a second life and she rededicated that life to serving others. Later that summer, she took her message to the UN. Her gift to the world was her open heart and her straight-in-the-eye look of courage when she spoke to the worlds’ governments.





[1] Millennium Development Report, UN 2013.