A UN group has been asking people in roughly 200 countries to set their own priorities for human development in an online survey called "My World." Overwhelmingly, participants have ranked a good education as their greatest priority, even amongst huge ongoing challenges to eradicate deadly disease, feed the hungry, improve nutrition and provide clean water.
This is a remarkable finding, but really is not a big surprise. One of the reasons I became an advocate for global education is because it is so deeply prized in today's world, irrespective of class, race, culture and nationality. Parents innately want a better life for their kids, and understand that education remains the best path to attaining it. But, it is the extent to which children and youth living in the poorest and most extreme circumstances will sacrifice and fight for an education, even risking their own lives, that moves and inspires me.
Many of the stories are nothing less than heroic. By now you've probably heard of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who defied the Taliban and insisted that she and other girls have a right to an education. In retaliation, Taliban gunmen shot her in the head and neck as she returned home on a school bus. Despite her critical injuries, she survived, received medical care in England and slowly recovered. In the face of continuing Taliban death threats, Malala refused to back down. Instead, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and took to the world stage to address the United Nations on her 16th birthday. In one of the most inspiring speeches I have heard from any world leader, she proclaimed:
"Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution."
Malala's heroism is exceptional, but in truth, is emblematic of the unstoppable desire for education felt by so many children whose odds are against them. Half of the world's out-of-school children reside in war-torn nations, and a vast number of the uneducated are poor, disabled and largely forgotten. However, like Malala, students and teachers around the world refuse to sacrifice their right to an education each and every day. Whether it is risking acid attacks in Afghanistan or school fires in Nigeria, working long hours to help their families while attending school at night, or breaking down gender barriers - their voices will not be silenced.
The NGOs that work in these countries hear this call and understand what needs to be done. They know we must focus on access, equity, quality and learning. They recognize that empowerment of women begins with educating girls, and understand the importance of safe, secure schools. They see the transformation that occurs through early childhood care and education. They realize that the school unites and heals communities emerging from conflict or disaster. They understand the importance of well-trained, qualified teachers, and strong education systems. They are making education inclusive and welcoming for the disabled and are working to bring schooling to nomadic groups, ethnic minorities and the rural poor. They give a second chance to refugees, child soldiers and laborers. They see that economic growth and poverty reduction are directly linked to how well children learn in schools and acquire relevant skills that will lead to good jobs. They will tell you that education in these countries is difficult work, demanding adequate and predictable resources, patience and political will. But they are making progress on behalf of the children and youth who have asserted that education is their greatest hope.
In September, world leaders will join together at the UN General Assembly on the same stage where Malala spoke not long ago. I ask that leaders listen to the 126 million children and adolescents calling for a better future. Together, we can build upon progress and expand the benefits of education to all children and youth, creating economic growth opportunities, reducing global poverty, and creating a more peaceful and stable world for future generations.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.