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What Will Malala's Nobel Peace Prize Mean For Girls' Education?

Afghan schoolgirls take lessons outdoors at a refugee camp near Jalalabad.
Noorullah Shirzada
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan schoolgirls take lessons outdoors at a refugee camp near Jalalabad.
After learning that she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai celebrated with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, in Birmingham.
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Getty Images
After learning that she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai celebrated with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, in Birmingham.

When Malala Yousafzai found out last Friday that she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi, the 17-year-old Pakistani girl didn't celebrate immediately. Instead she returned to a chemistry class at her high school in Birmingham, England.

It was a fitting reaction by someone who's risked her life for the right to be educated.

At the age of 11, Yousafzai, the daughter of a school principal, became a blogger for the BBC and documented the growing influence of the Taliban, who wanted to ban girls' education and were blowing up schools and closing others down in her home of Swat, in northern Pakistan.

In October 2012, a Taliban gunman stormed her school bus and shot her in the head as she sat with her friends — targeting her for her outspoken advocacy of girls' education.

Yousafzai survived, made an astonishing recovery and settled with her family in England after receiving medical treatment there. She published a memoir, I Am Malala, and started the Malala Fund, which supports girls' education around the world. She marked her 16th birthday with a speechat the United Nations. And she has continued to attend school.

The Nobel Prize, she joked on Friday, is "not going to help in exams." Then she said: "I want to see every child going to school. There are still 57 million children who have not received education."

What needs to be done to reach those unschooled children? Goats and Soda spoke with Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of research at the university's FXB Center for Health and Human Rights who specializes in children's rights.

Where are we in the effort to educate the world's children?

Thanks to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals and their emphasis on young children's rights, there's been a lot of progress around access to primary education for young children from 6 to 12. The global picture is quite encouraging.

But though there have been big strides in access, there are many questions about quality.

The extent of regular attendance to school is still contested. Also, there is evidence coming out of South Asia, among other places, that just being in school doesn't deliver literacy, numeracy and the ability to think critically.

Secondly, there is real concern, and I think Malala's case pinpoints this problem, about secondary education.

Primary education in this day and age is not adequate. In the global economy, you need much more. You don't just need literacy and numeracy. The emphasis on secondary education has been quite lacking.

In India, for example, access to secondary education is grossly maldistributed. Less than 20 percent of rural girls in India make it to secondary school, and only 6 percent move on to college. Both [secondary school and college] are increasingly critical to get jobs in this skill-based global economy.

There are huge differences dictated by where you live, your caste and your gender. The picture in India is replicated for sure in Pakistan and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

It's quite clear that secondary education remains a huge black spot in terms of social and economic rights advances.

Have any countries improved their girls' access to education?

Bangladesh is a very interesting exception in South Asia. Bangladesh, which is poorer than India or Pakistan, has made dramatic strides in advancement of secondary education, including girls' education.

So there is nothing about the South Asian context or political economy that justifies this big lack of access to secondary education among poor kids and girls.

How did Bangladesh make these strides?

With a combination of public and private intervention. Despite not generally being known for excellence in governance and despite facing many natural disasters, they've made a real priority of focusing on education.

The progress was very much aided and abetted by an extraordinary NGO called BRAC, which, in partnership with the Bangladesh government, opened rural schools across the country. Thousands of them. Together, they prioritized education and nondiscrimination against girls.

This partnership between a visionary NGO and a willing government that has allocated substantial resources transformed the national picture. It's a very good model to emulate.

Are there countries or regions where the situation is particularly bad?

Most regions have very serious issues about access to quality education. Look at the U.S. The evidence about access for poor and minority communities to quality and safe education, including secondary education, is very depressing.

No Child Left Behind has not worked. In fact, it's failed.

If you look at the literacy and skill levels for the U.S., there are enormous disparities, which parallel income gaps between races and ethnicities.

It's not wise to generalize too broadly, because of interregional and intercountry variables.

Latin America has many problems, but if you take Brazil, the south of the country does much better than the north. Poor families in the south will choose to send their children in schools, despite the costs to farming or family businesses, because the education delivers valuable skills, whereas in the north, that's not the case.

How do Malala Yousafzai and her organization factor into all this?

There has been some controversy about the choice of Malala [for the Nobel Peace Prize] because she's so young, and she has only been an activist for two years.

Personally, I believe that it is a brave and excellent choice. She is an example of personal courage and determination.

Malala and her organization highlight two things. First is the right to an education that every child should have irrespective of their circumstances — social, economic or political.

Second are the very physical risks related to making this a reality. I think very few people realize how dangerous going to bat for tens of thousands of young people can be.

As part of the South Asia Institute at Harvard, we just finished a research project in two big states in India — Maharashtra and Rajasthan — looking at the factors that make it difficult for girls to continue with their education. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are really prominent. [There is] a risk of bullying, the risk of discrimination and stigma.

All these are issues that Malala's activism and her award draw attention to. I think Malala highlights a real desire for education that mirrors a desire seen in millions of poor people.

Going forward, what's the key to improving access to education?

At the most basic level, we need to confront violence against children, which is a huge barrier to realizing their potential, whether it's child abuse in the home or abuse in schools [or] physical punishment [or] sexual abuse. Corporal punishment is a huge disincentive, but widely spread still. The whole abuse of power by adults is one huge factor that needs addressing.

When you have children who are frightened, depressed or stung by trauma, education becomes impossible, even if you take them to school and physically sit them at a desk. It's impossible for them to concentrate and to learn.

This problem should not be left to individual parents. It's a critical public policy issue.

We also need to address cultural norms that make it difficult for families, particularly families of poor children, to move up.

Cultural norms involving early child marriage or that pull kids out of school when they reach puberty, cultural norms that suggest that poor children are better off working in the fields and supporting their families — those need to be addressed by government policy and publicity.

Technical barriers exist, too, such as teacher training, monitoring and evaluation. Performance-related incentives are critically important.

Many experts have said we need a global drive toward improving education, akin to what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did with their global drive toward improving global health.

It's really a massive project with many aspects, but it has such enormous consequences for the future. If we don't attend to it, then we'll increase this sense of hopelessness, anger and frustration among millions of youths. We've already seen in some parts of the world that can have dramatic consequences.

We ignore this set of issues at our peril.

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Nsikan Akpan