A month ago, had you been driving through the affluent home counties and rolling hills of Britain at dawn, you may have glimpsed columns of students, their breath frozen in the chill of breaking dawn, marching to school through the mist. Hundreds of them, boys and girls, joined forces to walk for up to two hours before school in solidarity with Malala Yousufzai and in celebration of International Girls Day. They experienced the long march to school done by so many Afghan children every day of their lives, for the education they value so much. Malala has inspired these children. Her courage has exposed the shocking truth about life for girls in areas dominated by extreme conservative forces. But it has also exposed the absolute determination and desire these girls have to receive an education.
When I travelled across Afghanistan as a doctor in 2001, the country was in the grip of the Taliban. Barely a million children were attending school, of which only 5,000 were girls. In a recent interview with the Minister of Education, H E Farooq Wardak, he told me his vision is to achieve Millennium Development Goal 2, access to education for all children in Afghanistan, by 2014. With almost a million extra children enrolling in school each year since 2001, more than 9 million are now accessing education, 40 percent of which are girls. His dream lies within his grasp.
What people will ask is whether this can be sustained after 2014, when international forces are expected to have withdrawn the bulk of their combat troops, particularly in light of the recent assassination attempt on Malala Yousufzai. I put this to the Minister, who replied that in the conservative Pashtun province of Kunar, which borders Pakistan, 16,000 new recruits had been expected in school this year, but 34,000 had turned up and 46 percent of those were girls. Likewise in Khost province, recruits had far exceeded expectations, with double the number of girls than expected. Five hundred schools that had been shut down have reopened this year without intervention from the Afghan National Army or International Forces. It is the people who have worked together to have the schools reopened and their message is that the girls must go to school.
A document outlining what appears to be the Afghani Taliban's official stance on education was circulated earlier this year. It states, "understanding the sacred Islamic disciplines and modern educational concepts are greatly needed." Its ideas align closely with the current educational activities of the Afghan government, allowing "contemporary subjects, such as science, chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, geography, history;" even on education for girls, the policy offers flexibility. Other senior-level statements issued since have endorsed this policy. The leadership no longer sanctions attacks on schools and teachers and realizes that they have to support education if they want to retain public support themselves, learning from the past, when their tough stance led to so much unpopularity.
What I have seen in Afghanistan over the last 10 years is a dramatic shift in attitudes toward education. Our project to support education for a population of 80,000 in remote Northeast Afghanistan was instigated by a former Mujahideen Commander, who came to find me to ask me to build a girls' school in his district. Here, barely a single adult woman can read or write, yet almost every child now has access to education, with equal numbers of girls and boys attending school. We built the school, and have built many more since. His daughter was the first girl ever to attend university from this region and is now an agriculturalist, bringing her own skills to help her community.
Men are beginning to recognize the economic advantage of educating girls. They know that secure school buildings, easy access to school and training of female teachers will mean that their own daughters will not only be able to access education, but will be able to complete their schooling, because the protected environment this offers is in keeping with Islamic values.
Last month, discussing a new building for girls in this district, I was told that there was a zero dropout rate for girls in this school and that 10 girls had gone on to university last year. This region is isolated and poor, yet every girl here has the spirit and determination of Malala.
These girls stand up in front of the crowds, which gather to greet us each time we visit. They may have just their eyes showing from under their scarves, but they are not afraid to ask for better education, to make demands and to tell us that they want to be the doctors, teachers, engineers and leaders of the future. Their value of education and their determination to serve their country puts our own education system into the shadows.
So when I am asked what will happen in 2014, I think of those children and I know for sure that over 10 million of them, who have the support of their parents behind them, are not going to allow the clock to be turned back. There will be many obstacles put in their way, and some areas will face far more difficulties than others, but they are an unstoppable movement. Whatever their own opportunities turn out to be in these difficult times of conflict and economic hardship, they will make sure that their sons and daughters have an education. I know this because I know them and am staggered by their determination, which is what has inspired me to invest my own life efforts in their future. The difference now is that the world knows this too, because Malala and her courage and her life have come to symbolize the determination of all girls across the world to have the right to an education.
This blog is part of a series called "Malala's Impact," which highlights the need for global education. The series is launched in partnership with the UN's Global Day of Action for Malalacampaign on November 10.