Development Finance

Educating girls: an investment in our future

Teenage Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 for trying to attend school

With the Sustainable Development Goals calling for an end to all forms of discrimination, Roman Rollnick highlights the campaign by Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai to get a better deal on education for women and girls

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. For those in the development community struggling to assist Syrian migrants, nothing has been more meaningful than the tragic photo of three-year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, which immediately saw a change in policy by David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK, amid an outcry from EU citizens for their governments to act.

That is not to judge or single out the UK government. The European Union has a collective responsibility to act and it is notoriously difficult to get consensus among the world’s governments, to overcome the many political, economic and cultural differences among us, which hold back funding and action on development, poverty alleviation and humanitarian aid.

This is why it often takes an individual to shout and bang on the table as loudly as possible, using every modern means of communication to achieve change. It becomes even more powerful when that person has been a victim of injustice.

The photo of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, lying in a hospital bed after being shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for championing the right of girls to education, also sent shockwaves round the world in 2012.

She was airlifted to hospital in Birmingham, UK and made a remarkable recovery. Now 18, she became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her “heroic struggle” for girls, sharing the prize with the Indian child rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi.

With two of the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were approved in the UN General Assembly in September, stressing the need to achieve gender equality and inclusive access to education (see box), Malala is leading a global initiative, The Malala Fund, to promote and finance equal opportunities for learning among women and girls.

At the beginning of July, Malala went to the Oslo Summit on Education for Development to tell world leaders to think bigger on education because she and Fund members fear that the bold new global education goal is at risk because of a lack of funding.

“Books are a better investment in our future than bullets,” Malala said. “Books, not bullets, will pave the path towards peace and prosperity.”

The annual funding gap for 12 years of primary and secondary school, plus one year of pre-school, has been calculated at US$39 billion

On 12 July, she spent her 18th birthday visiting Syrian refugees in Turkey, from where Aylan Kurdi had drowned in a desperate bid to reach Greece. And in the eight days which followed, 20,000 people from around the world had answered Malala’s call to join her birthday action, with the hashtag #booksnotbullets.

“You stood with Malala and told governments that YOU believe that education is our greatest weapon,” said Malaka Gharib, Digital Manager of the Malala Fund, in a message posted on the Fund’s website.

Why eight days? “It represents an interesting statistic that we outlined in a new report,” says Gharib. “If the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just eight days, we could fill the annual funding gap and enable every child access to 12 years of free, quality education.”

That annual funding gap has been calculated at US$39 billion, and Malala and her father, co-founder of the Fund, are championing the voices of other girls to campaign at the international, national and local level for policy and system changes to give girls access to high-quality education at a community level.

Empowerment through education

According to UN Women, on average around the world, adult women have 7.3 mean years of schooling while men have 8.2. Girls who enroll in school must also be able to complete their education, at all levels, and not drop off along the way. States need to prioritise investments for dedicated toilets for girls, adequate infrastructure, literacy and technology programmes, as well as pre-school care so mothers can go to school.

Malala, in her Nobel acceptance speech, put it this way: “We are living in the modern age and we believe that nothing is impossible. We have reached the moon 45 years ago and maybe we will soon land on Mars. Then, in this 21st century we must be able to give every child a quality education.”

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning

Targets (selected):

• By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes

• By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Targets (selected):

• End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
• Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life

UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Yannick Glemarec, says the success of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will depend on the world’s ability to achieve the proposed sustainable development goals 4 and 5 and their ambitious targets.

“Education empowers girls and women to take full charge of their own lives and actively participate in the development of their communities and countries–as both beneficiaries and agents of change,” he says. “However, girls from rural areas, ethnic minorities and indigenous groups continue to have the lowest levels of literacy and education. Studies show that women and girls face intersecting and cumulative forms of disadvantage and discrimination.”

To achieve the goal of quality education for all by 2030, Glemarec says there needs to be a concerted effort to remove all barriers to education for girls and adolescents–such as harmful social norms, early marriages, unsafe schools, unequal distribution of the care burden, and poverty.

Gender equality in education goes beyond the classroom and it goes beyond the issue of parity in education.

“It is about equality in the quality of education and equality in the socioeconomic opportunities that are derived from education,” adds Glemarec.

Yannick Glemarec, Deputy Executive Director, UN Women

The Fund, with offices in London, New York, Washington DC, seeks to galvanise a global advocacy campaign around secondary education, and currently finances projects run by local groups in Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It exploits the latest technology and digital tools, and counts current US Chief Technology Office Megan Smith as a founding member of its advisory board, with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia among its early advisors.

Anantha Krishnan, a former UN-Habitat director who played an advisory role in establishing the office of the UN’s special advisor on youth, praised the Oslo Summit for its agreement to establish a new Global Humanitarian Platform and Fund for Education in Emergencies.

“It is commendable that world leaders decided on developing a system to improve how aid is provided in emergencies and urgently address the funding needs of education in emergencies, especially for girls,” he said.

Now a Senior Associate with the International Centre for Energy, Environment and Development, he works in Nigeria on the empowerment of youth and women who have been uprooted in the Boko Haram terror attacks and who are now living as internally displaced people.

It was girls’ schools that Boko Haram chose to attack, kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls, and Krishnan praised Malala for keeping up the international pressure by personally visiting many of their parents.

He also took her message, and that of the UN system one step further arguing that the empowerment of girls starts with leadership, not only education as reflected in the targets for SDG5. He says: “Many societies have astute, smart, educated and hardworking girls, who for lack of role models and leadership training are still not speaking in their communities against injustice, violence or harmful cultural practices in their communities.”

For Krishnan, the new global education fund must have a robust leadership training component, with affirmative action in political representation at the local and national levels.

“Malala is a shining example of leadership, as well as education, and that has made her the role model for millions of girls and boys all over the world,” he says.