The right to girls' education is the fight for a better world

A unique lesson in a New York school given by Ms Mariam Khalique, teacher of the Pakistani schoolgirl who was attacked by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai - © UNESCO/Rick Bajornas

In the 11 years that she has taught hundreds of children in Pakistan’s troubled Swat District, Mariam Khalique has born witness to the violent measures taken to keep girls out of school. She has also seen how far girls and their teachers will go to claim their human right to an education.

“I remember when it was announced on the radio that girls would not go to school,” Khalique said, recalling the infamous decrees issued by Taliban militants.  But despite these threats many girls, she added, went anyway, supported by their teachers who told them to leave their uniforms at home and hide their school bags under their shawls.  “We saw the freedom that education gave us and it made us stronger. That is why they wanted to take it away.”

Joined by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova,  Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, Anthony Lake and Amina J. Mohammed, Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Post- 2015 Development Planning, Khalique spoke Thursday at the launch of “Education transforms lives,” a new analysis by the Education for All Global Monitoring Report confirming that progress in education is pivotal to the success of post-2015 priorities, including poverty eradication, health, environmental sustainability, governance and women’s empowerment.   Education has unrivalled power to reduce extreme poverty and boost wider development goals, according to highlights pre-released from 2013-2014Report. The analysis is released ahead of the UN General Assembly discussions on the post-2015 development agenda. 

Special guest speakers included the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms Irina Bokova - © UNESCO/Rick Bajornas

“Education has the power to change the world and that each of you holds this power,”  Irina Bokova told guests at the event, held at  at the  Mary Lindley Murray Primary School in New York. “I remember a slogan I saw in May inscribed on the walls of a girl’s school in Kabul, Afghanistan. It said: My pen is my sword. Because education is a force for peace, for tolerance, and mutual understanding.”

“There are 57 million children who don’t have a classroom to go to,” said Anthony Lake,  adding that universal access to education is just the first step.  “It’s not just getting kids into school. It’s keeping them in school and learning in school,” The Executive Director of UNICEF said.

“Education must also be lifelong learning,” said Amina Mohammed.

Three students presented copies of “Education transforms lives”to Mohammed and asked that she share the document with UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon.  

“Rich or poor, far or near, everyone deserves an education. Education gives everyone an equal chance to succeed in life," said student Kevin Ourvan.

Ms Mariam Khalique, teacher of the Pakistani schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, who was attacked by the Taliban, spoke to the class about her experiences teaching to empower girls and young women - © UNESCO/Rick Bajornas

One of Khalique ‘s pupils was Malala Yousafzai a teenager who nearly one year ago survived an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen who shot her in the head and neck while returning home on a school bus. That attack, she said, “has knocked at the door of every man and woman’s conscience.”

“Malala’s courage reminds us that the right of girls to quality education is the fight for a better world,” said Bokova. 

“Where I come from many people don’t know the value of education.  It’s shocking when we talk about girls’ rights…  Education should be a right that is taken for granted like it is here in the United States,” said Khalique, who was visiting an American public school for the first time. 

The launch was held in the school’s sunlit music room that has an upright piano, guitars and drums as well as  plastic bins of maracas, bells and cymbals.  A black treble clef and sixteenth notes hang like ornaments from the florescent overhead lights. 

When asked what her first impression was of the classroom, Khalique said, “They are blessed with so much,” adding, “It makes me a little sad.”

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