At this time of year, we tend to look for milestones and symbols to represent the achievements of 2012 and inevitably we hope for better things to come. One such symbol is Time Magazine's Person of the Year award for which nominations and voting have just closed. It is looking promising for Malala Yousufzai, the courageous 15 year-old Pakistani girl who stood up against the Taliban for education for girls.
Now recovering from the attempted assassination in a UK hospital, Malala has become an international celebrity with Nov. 10th being declared Malala Day, with her name on T-shirts, billboards and websites everywhere affirming the right of all girls to have an education. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has recently been appointed UN special envoy for global education and is promoting Malala's cause and that of the estimated 32 million girls worldwide who are not in school.
On a trip to Pakistan in November, he delivered a one million signature petition calling on the government to provide quality education for all Pakistan's girls and boys by the end of 2015. A welcome response was the unanimous passage by Pakistan's National Assembly on Nov. 13th of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, which guarantees education for all children in the capital area -- a promising start which can be attributed directly to Malala and her campaign.
The TIME magazine website for Malala's candidacy for Person of the Year notes that she had been encouraged by her devout Muslim father and hopefully this will be an example for other conservative parents, to be inspired to support their daughters' education, risking criticism in parts of the world dominated by conservative Islam. As the Rockefeller Foundation notes on its website for the Global Partnership for Women and Girls: "Time and again, the teachings of the Quran and Hadith say that the acquisition of knowledge and human equality are intrinsic and fundamental to the teachings of the faith." Many Muslim countries recognize this and are eager to see increased gender equality in education.
Educating women and girls has one of the highest rates of return in terms of development outcomes, improving economic productivity and lowering infant and maternal mortality. In countries where girls receive the least education, the average fertility rate is more than double that of countries where girls receive the most years of schooling. With more than 800 million Muslim women and girls in the world, it is shameful that the literacy rate among women in the Arab world is still only 55 percent, according to the latest UNDP report. In newly emerging democracies such as Tunisia and Egypt, one of the most pressing problems is that of youth unemployment and the need is for education that leads to jobs, such as technical training, functional numeracy and literacy. Women have shown themselves really responsive to entrepreneurship and working cooperatively and these are the skills that should be developed in education curriculum for girls if there is to be any notable reduction in poverty in emerging democracies.
One of the UN Millennium Development Goals is "to ensure that, by the same date, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education."
This inspiring goal is hard to achieve as funding and resources shrink with expanding populations. It is time resources were used more wisely with military spending diverted to education. Mexico, for example, uses 3.3 percent of its budget for the military and 24.3 percent on education, whereas Pakistan spends 23.1 percent on the military and only 7.8 percent on education. A comparison of growth statistics shows that Mexico is 13th largest in nominal GDP terms and Pakistan is 27th, a powerful argument for more investment in education. (http://www.economywatch.com).
Hopefully, Malala will become TIME's Person of the Year and her inspiration will be a focus for increased educational opportunities for girls in Muslim countries and other emerging democracies. Her beliefs and courage, literally under fire, and her bold challenge of oppressive fundamentalism deserve the world's attention.
Malala and the 32 million girls not in school will be the winners and the Persons of the Year only if the world recognizes them and takes action.