San Francisco – Northwest Pakistan has been in the grip of the Taliban for several years, during which their aggression has been directed, among others, at schooling for girls. Systematically burning or vandalizing schools, the Taliban reportedly destroyed about 400 schools in Swat during the period 2001-2009 of which 70 percent were girls’ schools. In neighboring Afghanistan, according to an Oxfam Joint Briefing Paper on Girls’ Education in Afghanistan (February 24, 2011), under the Taliban, the majority of girls’ schools were closed and gross enrollment fell from 32 percent to just 6.4 percent.

Malala, now known the world over as the face of girl’s education, is a determined 15 year old youngster who appreciated being able to attend a school, saw its benefits to her and to girls like her, and became its dedicated voice. Summoning her courage and skills of expression when she started writing a blog in Urdu for the BBC, she managed to effectively and candidly draw the world’s attention to the Taliban’s reign of terror. Her writing, as one website notes, “is a crucial record of the devastating consequences of extremism on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.” (http://www.avaaz.org)

The ire she provoked among the Taliban led to a horrific attack on her following which she lies in a hospital in London recovering from her near fatal injuries. Not discouraged by the shots fired at her point blank and unmoved by the Taliban’s announced intention to make another attack on her life, she willingly accepted to show her face to the world. God is supposed to speak through children, and child is also the father of man. No higher testimony to these adages than Malala’s courage and forbearance seems possible.

To this undefeated champion for girls’ right to education, there is more than prayer for her recovery that we owe as tribute. Pakistan, like its neighbors India and Afghanistan and scores of other countries, is battling the cause of educating girls. While the constitutions and laws of most nations, in line with global mandates and globally approved Millennium Development Goals, provide for universal education and equal access by girls and boys to schooling, the reality of the status of girls’ education is far from equitable. Even as the ratio of girls to boys enrolled in school has risen at all levels of education across the world, gender gaps remain significant.

In 2010, 61 million children globally were out of school, the majority (53 percent) of which were girls. Of the 61 million, 26 percent have attended but left school, 27 percent are expected to enter school in the future, and the remaining 47 percent are expected to never enter. The proportion of children out of school was disturbingly high (e.g., 18 percent in Ethiopia and 42 percent in Nigeria).

In over 30 countries that were analyzed, girls are more likely to be out of school (28 percent) than boys (25 percent); rural children are twice as likely to be out of school as urban children; and children from the poorest quintile are four times more likely to be out of school than from the richest quintile (20 percent) of households.

Overall, the highest percentage of children out of school is observed among girls from the poorest household quintile (43 percent). Boys from the richest household quintile are the least likely to be out of school (9 percent). It is safe to assume that girls suffer from a triple whammy of location, income level, and gender.

Pakistan offers convincing evidence of the triply disadvantaged girls. With around one in four 7 to 16 year olds who had never been to school at all (in 2007), and most of them unlikely to have the chance to enter a classroom, it is the poorest girls in Pakistan who are most likely to be excluded. Among them, as many as two in three have never been to school.

The Taliban is not the sole obstructionist force to girls’ education. Attacks on girls and on female teachers are by no means limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but are reported from various regions of the world, including Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. Aggressions occur in various forms, including acid throwing, killings, disappearances, abductions, forced exile, torture, maiming, rape, and the occupation and destruction of schools.

In at least 31 countries, as the 2012 UN Report on Children and Armed Conflict notes, education has been the target of intentional attacks for political, ideological, sectarian, religious, military or other reasons.

In every setting, society, faiths, parents and governments have all contributed to the undermining of girl’s education and equal treatment. Starting with conception itself, parents in many of the underperforming countries seek to elect a male fetus and to eliminate the female fetus. Once born, the girl child’s survival is threatened by calculated neglect of her nutritional and care needs. Investing in a girl, as a well-known Asian proverb warns, is like watering a plant in a neighbor’s garden.

Not surprisingly, boys and men continue to hog the greater share of family resources, including those spent on nutrition, healthcare and schooling. Together the neglect that runs the gamut from infancy through adolescence and adulthood accounts for what demographers and eminent economists like Amartya Sen define as millions of missing girls and women in the world’s population.

Given the above context, not only is it not surprising, but logical that Malala should seek to defend her own and every girl’s right to education. In her case, parental support in educating her surely has strengthened her hand and contributed to her resoluteness. Action to guarantee equal access to schooling lies undoubtedly with the multitude of players (including governments, faiths, societies and parents) who are responsible for having caused the problem in the first case.

As she lies in a hospital bed, a senseless target of Taliban gunmen, forces are mobilizing across the world and importantly also in India and Pakistan to help advance her cause. Petitions are being signed and conveyed to pressure the Government of Pakistan to roll out the required funding to encourage and enable Pakistani families to send their girls to school. You can sign the ‘I am Malala’ petition on: www.educationenvoy.org to join your voice to Malala’s.

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