People around the world are rightly outraged at the attempted assassination of Pakistan’s courageous and determined advocate for girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai. On her way home from school in Mingora in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last week, a Taliban gunman walked up to Malala’s school bus, asked for her name and shot her in the head and neck. Malala came to public attention three years ago when she wrote a diary for the BBC about life under the Taliban, which controlled Swat from 2007 to 2009.
In the diary, which she kept for the BBC’s Urdu service under a pen name, she exposed the suffering caused by the militants as they ruled. Campaigning for girls’ education Malala’s most passionate campaign was against the Taliban’s prohibition of female education. A poignant entry from her blog entitled ‘I may not go to school again’ from January 2009 reads: “I was in a bad mood while going to school because winter vacations are starting from tomorrow. The principal announced the vacations but did not mention the date the school was to reopen. The girls were not too excited about vacations because they knew if the Taliban implemented their edict [banning girls' education] they would not be able to come to school again. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.” On at least two occasions prior to this attack the Taliban threw letters into Malala’s home warning her to stop her advocacy — or else. Malala’s father, himself an outspoken education activist, had also received death threats from the Taliban. But he was proud of his daughter’s efforts and never asked her to stop.
Taliban attacks on education
The attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai is the latest in a long line of attacks on education by the Taliban. On 12 November 2008 in southern Afghanistan, two motorcyclists rode up to a group of 15 girls and female teachers walking and chatting on their way to Mirwais Nika Girls High School, Kandahar. The Motorcyclists threw a liquid over them and Atifa Biba, 14, screamed as she felt and smelled her skin burning. The liquid was battery acid. The attack left at least one girl blinded, two permanently disfigured and two others seriously hurt. That attack showed the lengths to which the Taliban were prepared to go to further their political aims. But unfortunately attacks on education are not just perpetrated by the Taliban.
The sheer volume of attacks on education documented in UNESCO’s 2010 compendium ‘Attacks on Education’ (PDF) demonstrates that the demolition of schools and assassination of students and teachers is by no means limited to the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A global phenomenon At the time of the report, education has been attacked in at least 31 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America over the previous three years. These attacks range from the maiming of students on their way to school or the forced recruitment of child soldiers and suicide bombers, to the torture or killing of teachers and academics, to the total destruction of centers of learning. In Colombia, hundreds of teachers active in trade unions have been killed in the last decade, the perpetrators often pro-government paramilitaries and other parties to the ongoing conflict between the government and rebel forces.
In northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has abducted large numbers of children from schools and taken revenge on villages believed to be aiding LRA defectors by, among other things, looting and burning schools. Stronger efforts at prevention, monitoring and accountability are required. An effective response to attacks on education will require more focused policies and action by concerned governments and a much stronger international effort. Ensuring that students, teachers, and schools are genuinely off limits to non-state armed groups and regular armies will require governments, opposition groups, and other organizations to implement strong measures that are enforced by rigorous monitoring, preventive interventions, rapid response to violations, and accountability for violators of domestic and international law.
Securing access to education
But we also need to redouble our efforts to ensure that children like Malala actually have the chance to go to school. Despite making education a fundamental constitutional right in 2010, Pakistan has no chance of fulfilling its Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal education by 2015. According to the Pakistan Education Task Force, a body which includes senior education officials and independent experts, over seven million primary-aged children do not attend school. In 2010, UNESCO said in its Global Monitoring Report that 30 % of Pakistan’s population lives in a state of “extreme educational poverty” – receiving less than two years of education.
Education in conflict-affected states: the key to peace
Over 40% of the 67 million children out of school worldwide live in fragile states with weak institutional capacity, poor governance, political instability and, in many cases, ongoing violence or the legacy of past conflict. A focus on education in fragile states will promote peace-building and conflict mitigation, and foster economic growth. The re-establishment of education systems in fragile states can provide a visible sign of a return to normalcy. But funding for education in conflict-affected fragile states remains massively insufficient. In a recent e-mail to New York Times journalist Adam Ellick, who profiled Malala Yousafazai for a 2009 documentary ‘Class Dismissed’ she wrote “I want access to the world of knowledge.” She clearly knew the power of education and campaigned for herself, her friends and for girls across Pakistan, and as a result became a target for the Taliban. In tribute, I hope we can muster half her courage and determination and make good on the promise of education for all.