Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot for going to school and who has become the world's symbol for the right of every girl to have an education, will speak at the United Nations on her sixteenth birthday today.
She will deliver, in front of 500 young campaigners from over 80 countries of the world, a rallying call: we must do more to find school places for the girls and boys who currently are forced to go without.
Last fall, waves of public support for Malala led the Pakistani Parliament to agree for the first time to universal compulsory education. But when Malala speaks today she will remind world leaders that half the girls in Pakistan's poor, rural areas still do not ever enjoy a first day at school, that around the world 31 million girls of primary school age still remain out of education, and that an estimated 500 million school-age girls will never complete their schooling.
Unless we change course, the 21st century will be a desert of lost opportunities for girls' education. It may be Malala's day today -- but until we take action we won't have a century in which we can say her dream of education for all will be realized.
Progress towards securing girls' education has stalled because we have failed to reach the most marginalised -- the child labourer, the child bride, the trafficked child and the girl discriminated against for her gender.
These girls, protesting for their right to go to school, are engaged in nothing less than a civil rights struggle, a freedom fight for which they need our support. Fortunately, they are not prepared to be cowed into silence or intimidated into subjugation. In Pakistan two million people -- 1 million out of school girls and boys included -- have signed petitions demanding the right of children to be educated.
In Nepal the Common Forum for Kalmal Hari Freedom fights child trafficking and seeks to move children from exploitation into education. In Bangladesh what are called 'wedding busters' have created 19 Child Marriage-Free Zones to protect girls from forced marriages at ages as young as 10. And in India, Bachao Bachpan Andolan, part of the Global March Against Child Labor, rescues young girls and boys from exploitative work and helps them back into school.
But the girls who are becoming more assertive in demanding their right to education need far greater support from us -- the international community charged with delivering that right. First the UN must debate the growing threats and brutalization of children thrust into the front line of a terrorist war in which militants want to stop all education. In the last month alone, 14 girls were massacred after a suicide bomber blew up the school bus in which they were travelling from their all-girls campus in Quetta, Pakistan.
We must show a determination that education will continue even in face of such dangers. Just as in fragile areas health care is provided by the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres, so too should education be provided by delivery agencies, even where the area is less than secure. This is even more essential for the world's conflict zones and fragile states, where historically a breakdown in law and order has meant the curtailment of schooling for children. A new organization, 'Education without Borders', should be created to provide, from Somalia to Syria, a continuation of education even in strife-torn areas.
But second, what I would call a 'progressive universalist' approach -- measures specially targeted on the most marginalised -- is also needed to move child labourers, street children, girl brides and trafficked children from exploitation into education. The way to give practical support to the liberation struggle now under way -- and to reach the most marginalised -- is to write into the next Millennium Development Goals a stipulation that we narrow the gap in educational opportunities between rural and urban, and between rich and poor areas. Doing more for those who have least is the only way to deliver opportunity for every child.
So today Malala Yousafzai brings to the UN, with my support, a clear message: it is time to do more. The problem is clear, the solutions known -- and if the voice of this courageous young woman on her sixteenth can help push world leaders into action, then she deserves the birthday congratulations of the whole world.
Credit: UN Web TV (http://webtv.un.org)
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in association with the A World at School campaign to mark Malala Day. Malala Day will take place at the United Nations on July 12, 2013 -- the 16th birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school. On that day, Malala will address 500 young campaigners as part of a special youth takeover of the United Nations. For more information, visit aworldatschool.org.