When the Taliban sent a gunman to kill a 15-year-old girl because she fought publicly for girls’ education, they intended to instill fear in anyone who wanted to educate young Pakistani women.
The bullet missed her brain, and not only has Malala Yousafzai become an international symbol of inspiration and bravery, but her survival instilled educators with courage — and is slowly helping make Pakistani schools safer.
“They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed,” Malala said in a speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday. “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
‘No One Should Be Shot for Going to School’
Northwest Pakistan, where Yousafzai lived and almost died, has been one of the most dangerous places on the planet to go to school — especially for young girls. In 2010, Taliban threats ran so high, nearly 1,000 government and private schools closed and more than 120,000 girls lost access to school, according to UNICEF.
But today, education advocates argue that Yousafzai’s survival — combined with military offensives that eliminated Taliban safe havens — reduced those threats. In surviving, Yousafzai inspired entire communities to protect their schools and passionately fight for a girl’s right to be educated.
“The clear message that is being sent by government, individuals, by amazing people like Malala is that we are not going to stop fighting for education,” Shirin Lutfeali, a specialist in education and literacy for Save the Children who works in Pakistan and across the region, said. “She has become a symbol of change: They are going to blow up schools, but we are no longer afraid.”
That fearlessness was facilitated not only by Malala but also by the Pakistani military pushing out militants who targeted or took over schools. By 2012, after the military’s operations, the number of schools destroyed dropped to 30, UNICEF said.
“There has been a reduction in attacks. But that’s not because the Taliban decided to be nice,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, who leads an education campaign group in Islamabad. “It’s because they realize that attacking schools is deeply despised by ordinary Pakistanis and because various Pakistan Army campaigns of ‘clear and hold’ have worked.”
That is not to say the threats have ended.
A 41-year-old teacher named Shahnaz Nazli was assassinated while standing next to her son in March, apparently because she was teaching girls in Khyber Agency, near the Afghan border.
In early September, a bomb exploded outside a girls’ school in the northwestern town of Bannu, Pakistan, as classes ended, wounding 14.
And in June, a bomb gutted a bus in the southwestern Pakistan town of Quetta, killing 14 female students.
As long as the attacks continue, campaigners acknowledge they have to fight the fear that forces some parents to keep their daughters at home.
Nazli’s death sparked a campaign by the U.N.’s special envoy for global education, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He launched a petition demanding more protection for teachers and girls. Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, were the first to sign.
Brown said he feared “a wave of threats, intimidation, burnings and bullets.”
“No one should be shot,” he said, “for wanting to go to school or wanting to teach girls.”
In response, some Pakistani schools have become bunkers, ringed by high walls and guarded by armed gunmen. Others have chosen a low-profile approach: leaving schools unmarked, or even hiding them in living rooms.
Perhaps one of the best measures of the continuing effect of the threats — as well as the government’s historic underfunding of education — is a sobering statistic: On any given day, across the country, 20 percent of teachers don’t show up to work, according to the education advocacy group Alif Ailaan, which is headed by Zaidi. The government admits 25 million children in Pakistan are out of school.
“The deck,” Zaidi said, “is stacked against children.”
Despite the grim statistics, half a dozen education advocates interviewed argued Yousafzai’s survival has helped many communities reach a tipping point. In Swat, Pakistan, the district where Yousafzai lived, parents are gaining confidence to defend their children’s schooling.
“The parents have no other choice. They want their children to get education — at any cost,” said Ahmed Shah, an expert on education and the spokesman for the Swat peace council. “That is the fate for those of us in Pakistan.”
Child Protection Committees
Last year, a rural village in eastern Pakistan realized it had a problem. Parents wanted to send their girls to school — and the girls wanted to attend — but not everyone felt safe. So with the help of the British NGO Plan International, the town created a “child protection committee.”
“We appointed a caretaker to walk the girls to and from the town center,” said Ata-Ullah Malik, the chairman of the committee.
Every day, a woman raps on the metal gates that protect the female students’ homes. Every day, she walks the girls to school and returns after classes to escort them home. The community has taken charge of securing its own students — and school attendance is up.
The film, “The Other Malalas,” describes the child protection committees and other challenges facing girls in Pakistan.
Education advocates argue the best way to ensure schools’ safety is for local communities to protect them. For that to happen, parents need to believe in the importance of education.
“Once they see the value, they want to protect it,” Fiza Shah, who runs the school-building NGO Developments in Literacy said.
When Shah first started building schools in conservative, rural areas in the late 1990s, she encountered fathers who said they didn’t want their girls to learn to write because they might send letters to boyfriends. Now, Shah believes many fathers are realizing schools produce girls who dream of much more than boyfriends.
“When we first opened schools, there was resistance. But then the parents saw the differences when girls came home,” Shah said. “When they actually see what education is doing, the resistance evaporates.”
Other programs, like Save the Children’s Literacy Boost, are gaining the confidence of parents by reaching young students who wouldn’t otherwise attend school — and keeping them in school.
“Compared to a few years back, there’s been a major change in attitude and acceptance to education,” Ghulam Qadri, Save the Children’s Pakistan country director, told ABC News. “We are seeing schools opening up in remote areas where there were no schools previously.
“The best criteria is community acceptance,” he said in a phone interview from Islamabad. “If the community accepts their education is essential, no one can stop it.”
Schools on the Frontlines
Community acceptance is one piece of the puzzle, but another crucial piece is the Pakistan military’s campaigns against the Taliban, which have dramatically reduced the threats to schools.
For six years, the Pakistani Taliban fought an organized, violent and brutal campaign against the military and Pakistani state institutions, including schools. For many militants, girls’ education was a symbol of both Western influence and the authority of a government they wanted to overthrow.
But as the military moved into communities mostly run by the Taliban, schools often became the front line: Soldiers and militants both used schools as bases.
“Most of the schools that came under attack were being used by the militants or the military as hideouts,” said Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of an independent think tank in Islamabad, the Centre for Research and Security Studies.
Now that the offensives are over, the schools have been returned to the educators — and attacks have decreased. Shah, the education specialist from Swat, said that “the situation is OK and peace has been restored to some extent. And now parents want to send their children to schools.”
Yet, despite the renewed confidence in learning, sending children to school still requires some bravery and a little bit of faith.
In communities near the Afghan border, some residents have told local media in the last few months that the Taliban are still using tactics famous from Afghanistan in the 1990s: letters posted to town centers at night warning parents to shun schools and describing girls’ education as “a product of the West.”
In Swat, many of the schools destroyed in the attacks have not reopened, Shah said. And the constant presence of soldiers, while helping keep the peace, is a reminder of how fragile it remains.
“They select whatever means they need to spread terror. It may be schools, it may be buses, it may be churches,” said Shah. “They want to spread fear among the people. And they are successful.”
Send Books, Not Tanks
For Malala Yousafzai, the solution is not a reliance on military action, but the creation of a national commitment to education. Only that, she said, can guarantee students’ and parents’ desire to learn and educate will not be broken.
For many years the Pakistani government has failed to provide enough support for schools: the country spends less than 2 percent of its budget on education. In the U.S., the percentage is about 4 percent, according to the New America Foundation. And according to the U.N., Pakistan’s literacy rate is 113th out of 120 countries.
Earlier this month, when Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, met with Yousafzai at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sharif pledged to increase the national commitment to 4 percent. The 16-year-old Yousafzai — whom Sharif recently named the country’s roving ambassador for education — thanked him for his commitment, but argued it was not enough.
“I hope this will become 5, 6, 7 percent,” she told Sharif, according to Zaidi.
Later that same night, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative, the teenager who has become a global icon of courage challenged world leaders to elevate education over war.
“Instead of sending weapons, instead of sending tanks to Afghanistan and all these countries which are suffering from terrorism, send books,” she said. “Instead of sending tanks, send pens. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers. This is the only way we can fight for education.”