Transcript: Malala Yousafzai on why girls’ education is one of the most sustainable investments

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Event transcript


Malala Yousafzai
Nobel Laureate


Shuja Nawaz
Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council


Frederick Kempe
President and CEO, Atlantic Council

Additional remarks

Maliha Khan
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

FREDERICK KEMPE: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to our guests joining from around the world. And we did time this particular program to take place in the American morning because we do know that more than half of our audience is from elsewhere in the world—and for this program, you’ll know why, as I introduce our speaker, that [is] particularly the case.

My name is Fred Kempe. I’m president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. And welcome to this edition of Atlantic Council Front Page, or hashtag #ACFrontPage, our premier platform for individuals of global consequence.

For today’s edition, I am honored to welcome the recipient of the Atlantic Council’s 2013 Freedom Award and of course the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai. She has become the world’s most prominent activist for girls’ rights to education, and this is especially important as we kick off Women’s History Month. Known by her story that rattled the world in 2012, Malala—and I will refer her to Malala because she has become so well-known for her story around the world that she has become what we call mononymous, which is one name—Malala—that moves us all. She has used her experience to champion the movement for girls to have access to proper education.

On October 9, 2012, while on a bus in the Swat district after taking an exam, Malala and two other girls were shot by a Pakistani Taliban gunman in an assassination attempt in retaliation for her activism even at that age. She remained unconscious and in critical condition for some time. That attempt on her life, which she of course mercifully recovered from, sparked an international outpouring of support.

Many people go through terrible things. Not so many apply it in the way that Malala has, to serve the improvement of the state of the world through girls’ education. She founded the Malala Fund, which invests in educating activists and advocates who are driving solutions to bring down barriers to girls’ education in their communities across eight countries. Through her tireless work, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to pursue her own education without fail. And just last spring she graduated from Oxford, so congratulations on that as well.

I’d also like to recognize and thank Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who has been an instrumental partner to the Atlantic Council and without whom today’s event would not have happened.

This will be a special conversation in a new series launched by our South Asia Center’s new Pakistan Initiative, led by Director Irfan Nooruddin and Distinguished Fellow and Founding Director of our South Asia Center Shuja Nawaz.

In addition to the Malala Fund, we are grateful for the support given to this important venture by farsighted institutions and individual donors from the Pakistani diaspora and from within Pakistan.

Shuja Nawaz will moderate today’s discussion with Malala, which will include remarks by Maliha Khan, a nonresident senior fellow in our South Asia Center as well as the chief programs officer for the Malala Fund. So, Shuja, over to you.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you very much, Fred. And a big thank you to Malala Yousafzai for joining us from England despite her very busy schedule. And again, I also want to add my thanks to her father, Ziauddin, who has been ready to respond over the years to all requests and was helpful in setting up this conversation—a conversation which comes, as you said, not only during Women’s History Month, but also three days before International Women’s Day. So it’s a very special occasion for us. And we are delighted that, to use Malala’s words, we are going to help “make a world where every girl can learn and lead.”

So on behalf of Irfan Nooruddin and the South Asia team, I want to welcome Malala and Maliha Khan, the chief program officer of the Malala Fund, to this conversation. Maliha is in Pakistan these days. Malala, of course, is in England. We’ll be joined later in the discussion by three practitioners—education practitioners. And the audience can also send questions, so after the initial discussion with Malala and Maliha we will turn to some of the questions, including those from the audience. When Malala leaves at the end of forty minutes for another commitment, we will continue our discussion with Maliha Khan, Basarat Kazim in Pakistan, Sabira Qureshi in Virginia, and Aanya Niaz in England.

Malala, thank you for helping us kick off this very special month and this very special week dealing with women. Let me begin by asking you to bring us up to date on the current state of your efforts to support girls’ education around the world working with the Malala Fund in eight different countries. And I assume that you are already thinking of expanding it beyond the initial eight. So what has been the biggest challenge for you in terms of promoting girls’ education, especially during this age of the pandemic?

MALALA YOUSAFZAI: First of all, I would like to thank Frederick and Shuja for such a warm welcome, and I’m really honored to be speaking here again. And I would like to give a shout-out to Noelle Warren, an eighth-grade student at Sidwell Friends. And I want to say hello to everyone in the audience who is watching us right now and will be watching us later. Thank you so much for your time today.

And, yes, girls’ education is a critical issue, and the Malala Fund has been working on highlighting this for many years now. Why I talk about girls’ education and why it is important to me is because I was one of the girls who could not go to school at age eleven. And I remember that day very well on the fifteenth of January 2009, I remember waking up and I was not able to go to school. Schools had been banned by the Taliban. And I cried for the whole day and I was questioning my dad that, you know, what would be my future if I cannot go to school. And I knew what had happened to many girls who were deprived of education. They had been pushed into early child marriages or into domestic labor or had been kept limited to their household and not allowed to achieve their dreams and, you know, all the dreams that they had to become a teacher, doctor, engineer.

So I did not want to see that future for myself, and I do not want to see that future for the millions of girls who are out of school right now. And Malala Fund has been responsive to all that is happening right now, including COVID-19. And our goal is to ensure that we create a world where all the 130 million girls can go to school, and those who are already in school can stay safe in school and receive the quality education that they need. And we work together with local activists in eight countries—including Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Brazil—and they are looking at the issues that girls are facing in that region and in that area, and how they can look for solutions to address those issues.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you. Now, you chose a very interesting approach. You have gone beyond the traditional donor approach, which is that of brick and mortar where you build schools and you expect that girls will start coming and then they will be educated. You are really concentrating primarily on the education part, not on building schools. How do you overcome the obstacles that societies, particularly in the developing world, are facing on the entry of the girls into the formal labor market, into the economies of the countries, into the societies of the countries after they’ve got their education?

MALALA: I think, you know, we want women to have the opportunity to participate in the economy, to participate in politics, and other areas in the country, and I think the first step to that is education. Education empowers women and girls to find a place for them in society, to become independent, and for themselves to not be dependent on other members in their family, as we all know that in many places when a girl is in her father’s house, she is dependent on her father and brother, and then she’s married off, and then she’s dependent on her husband. And you know, if there is a case of divorce or something like that, then she’s sent back to the father’s family and then she’s dependent again. So that education takes away that dependency in a woman’s life and allows her to stand on her own two feet.

And, yes, then even after getting an education there are further challenges that women and girls face in having equal opportunities. But I think education in itself is that necessary step that we must take to allow women to gain their place in society because many women do not even know that they have equal rights and that this society in which they are living right now, they are not paid equally, they are not treated equally, they are harassed, they face discrimination—that this is not OK, that human rights does not allow that, that their culture does not allow that, that the principle and the values that we hold do not allow that. But many women are not aware of that, and I think that awareness-raising is important.

And education is not just limited to schooling, but education goes beyond that. And I think we have—we need to continue to educate ourselves, to educate communities about what equality means and what their role is in ensuring that women gain and we all gain a place of equality.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Now, what impressed me—and I’m sure others will be interested in this concept—is that, again, unlike traditional donors, you have tried to create ownership within the countries where you operate. And you have a concept called Champions for Education so that there is continuity, there is local ownership. Can you talk a bit about that? And maybe Maliha can also give us some information on how that operates.

MALALA: Yeah. So I’ll start a bit.

My father and I, we were activists in Swat Valley and we know how impactful the activism of local activists can be. So I believe in the activism that local educators and advocates are doing. And right now there are amazing activists all around the world that Malala Fund is supporting. Our champions in Nigeria, for instance, in this time of the pandemic, have been working on providing school lessons through radios. They have been pushing for policy-level changes to ensure that secondary education is granted to children. They have been passing these laws.

And advocacy work is a long process and you may not see the outcomes soon. And you have to have that faith that it will happen if you keep on pushing for it. So Malala Fund has supported advocacy in Brazil, Pakistan, Afghanistan, in all these countries.

So there are three things that we focus on.

The first one is financing for education. And for that, policy-level changes are required and our champions in Pakistan and India and in all of these countries are pushing for that.

Secondly, it is the quality of education. And for that they focus on technology, they focus on creating gender-sensitive content and curriculum, and they’re pushing for policy-level changes, and they’re using technology and creating digital devices that can ensure that girls continue to learn. And we have a champion in Afghanistan who has done that. They have created this content of education and they have accumulated that so that children can have access to it through their mobile phones and through other digital tools that they have so even if in this time of pandemic a girl is in her house, she can continue her education.

And then the third one is social norms. And this is also Malala Fund’s priority because, as you mentioned we need to address the social values that women and girls are facing. And in that, local community leaders can play a key role to engage religious leaders, to engage parents, to engage teachers, and to engage local politicians and remind them that even their own culture and their own religion and faith promotes girls’ education and equality—that this is not something new, this is not something coming from the so-called West or whatever we call it.

For instance, in Pakistan, we need to push for this advocacy that Islam allows women to have equal rights, to have equal opportunities, and to have the right to education. If it’s Punjabi ethics or if it’s our Pashtunwali code of conduct, all of these cultures that we have, they also promote women to have a place. And even if there is something, then we need to change those values if they go against human rights because we are the ones who create these cultures and traditions, so we should be the ones who change it if they do not promote equality.

And Maliha can more to that.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Go ahead, Maliha.

MALIHA KHAN: That was an extremely comprehensive response, Malala. I don’t have too much to add.

The two things I will add that I think need to be emphasized [are] the reasons why we take this approach, Shuja, is that we feel very strongly that education is the right of every citizen. And if it’s the right of every citizen, that means it’s the responsibility of every government to provide that. And the girls are equal citizens, as everybody else is, so we feel very strongly that if we can support advocates who try to hold the government responsible for the rights that their citizens need to have, including the girls, towards a quality, safe, and free education, that is the best long-term investment that we can make rather than brick-and-mortar schools or any other type of support.

The other thing I’ll add is just a little bit on our education champions, that one of the key things that we try to support for them is networking. One activist alone can do many great things if they’re a Malala and are in that fortunate—or, rather, unfortunate—situation. But the collective of champions together along with their own wider networks, what they can do, by coming together and really pushing for specific issues as they come up, that we feel is an extremely strong force. So we also support the networking at the national level, at the regional level, and at the global level of all the sort of different networks of champions who are focusing on girls’ education so that they can learn from each other, they can support each other, and they can engage in collective action. And that, we feel, is the best investment we can make.

SHUJA NAWAZ: That’s a great point. And just to further strengthen it, our own experience at the South Asia Center when we had a very active Emerging Leaders Program was that we created a network which, even though we are not running that project any longer, is still existing and you have members of that network across the globe. So I think this is the ownership that Malala was talking about.

Let me ask about the relationship between government and private schools because it is still a large proportion of the students that go to government schools and they’re not well-run. So is there an ideal mix or are you trying to get more smaller, locally accessible private schools operating in the country? And then how do you improve the quality of education by improving the quality of teachers?

MALALA: If I’m honest, I think we want all schools to provide quality education to children. So no matter if you are in a private school or a government school, you should be getting the education that can take you to the opportunities that you want in your life. And especially if you are a girl, we want you to be safe whether you are in a government school or a private school. And you know, in our constitution, in human rights, it is the responsibility of the state and of the government to ensure that all children can have access to their education, that the state provides quality and safe education to all children.

So from that lens, it’s important to promote quality education in government schools. And, yes, in the short run we are pushing and we are asking private schools to also promote education and to focus on including girls and create—and doing further advocacy for girls’ education and taking a bit more efforts to ensure that girls are, you know, coming to school, and that they convincing their parents and local community leaders.

So the projects that we are supporting, you know, some of our champions, some of the activists that we are supporting, they do have their own schools or are they supporting schools that could be private or could be government schools. So we have not put any limitation. But our goal is to ensure that in our country, in Pakistan, the government plays its critical role, which is to ensure that all children have access to safe and quality education.

And you know, it’s sort of the quasi-public good, so the private sector may not be able to fulfill the needs and it may not be able to meet the demand. There would be those who cannot afford education [and would be] left out, and we do not want anybody to be left out if they cannot afford private schooling. And I think that the government has that key responsibility to grant education to every child and focus especially on girls.

SHUJA NAWAZ: No, of course, government can’t do everything. And as you well know, in Pakistan there are something like 25,000 madrasas or religious schools, and the majority of them are aimed at boys. Is there any attempt, that you are aware of, trying to get girls into those religious schools? Because if there are no private schools, if there are no government schools, the madrasa is the only option. And is there some way in which the government can regulate the madrasas in a way that they have to have girls’ madrasas?

MALALA: Madrasa is a religious place and a madrasa has very limited education that only covers the Quran and that covers religious content, and madrasas do not cover science. Madrasas do not cover maths. Madrasas do not cover arts. Madrasas do not cover languages other than Arabic, unfortunately. So madrasa right now, the structure that is in place, is not able to provide the school-level education.

And I know that there have been efforts made to ensure that there is sort of that minimum standard set for education, that whether a child is in a school—or in a public school, a private school, or in a madrasa that child has access to this much of education at this age in their life. But I think we need to be a bit more optimistic and we need to think ahead and we need to have that bigger vision to ensure that we provide the best-quality education to all of our children.

I know many, many students who are all close family and friends. The boys were sent off to madrasas, and if they spend three or four years in a madrasa then they are not able to catch up on the school years that they have missed and they are then limited in the opportunities that they have. They miss out on their education. They miss out on getting professional qualifications. So there are those barriers.

But I think it’s important that our government give serious attention to this issue and ensure that we promote a system of education which is inclusive, which includes all children, which is inclusive in terms of the class of people that it involves so that people of all backgrounds are getting their education. It doesn’t matter which income level they are coming from, what religious background they’re coming from, and whether they are a girl or a boy, that all of them have access to quality education.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Moving to something a little closer to your own tastes, you were not long ago on a radio program called “Desert Island Discs” in which you selected some songs that you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island. And it struck me that it was an eclectic mix of music from the West as well as from your own country, and there was also a Pashto song. But an impressive addition to the list was a song which is an original poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the famous Pakistani poet, called “Hum Dekhenge,” which has become an anthem for protest in South Asia, including in India last year when the women were protesting in the streets and stood up against the police ranks and sang that song. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to like that and put that in your playlist?

MALALA: I will be honest: It was one of the hardest decisions ever to select eight songs for “Desert Island Discs.” And I’m a Pashtun, and then growing up in Pakistan you grow up in such a rich culture that you are seeing Bollywood movies and watching Indian dramas, and you have the Pakistani entertainment industry as well, and then you are also listening to pop songs from the West and you are watching Hollywood movies as well. So I had quite a lot to cover, including Justin Bieber.

And also, these incredible songs that have brought revolutions, that have empowered people to speak the truth, and one of those powerful songs was “Hum Dekhenge” written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and sang by Iqbal Bano. And just the history of the song where she sang it wearing a black sari, and just the roles and how she just uplifted that whole crowd by singing those two words of faith. That was such a powerful song, and it just reminds us all that truth shall prevail and truth will prevail, but that truth has so much power that it can change the world. It can bring justice. It can bring fairness and equality for all, and I believe in that. And I know that you cannot continue suppression and you cannot continue atrocities for too long because people will rise and people will speak the truth, and lies and falsehoods cannot last for long. And it is the words of faith that give us all so much courage and so much optimism about changing our future and making this world a safe place for all.

Yeah, so “Hum Dekhenge,” we shall see. And we shall see a world where all girls can have access to safe, quality, and free education.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Well, I think you are living your words. And more recently, not for the first time, you spoke out in support of the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped, and we are glad to know that they were finally released. So your words matter, too.

At this stage, Malala, I’m going to ask the audience if they have questions to send them over and my colleagues at the South Asia Center will share them with me. We’ll try and get them into the next fifteen minutes or so and we’ll get answers from you and Maliha, and then we’ll let you go at forty minutes after the hour, and then we’ll carry on our discussion.

So let me see if I can bring on one of the practitioners that I mentioned, Basarat Kazim. Basarat has been very instrumental in taking education to the people through mobile libraries. She’s also been very active on the international stage, and she’s started a new angle to what’s called STEM education by adding to the [letter] A, making it STEAM education. So let me ask Basarat if she has a quick comment and a question for you.

BASARAT KAZIM: Yes. I’m actually delighted to be in conversation with you, Malala. It’s wonderful.

Through our Projects on the Go, which is the mobile make-a-space that Alif Laila just started, we have launched an entrepreneurship program for girls in secondary schools, and we want them to use the skills that they learn to think of possible businesses that they can start up from the home. Would you have a message for them?

MALALA: Well, my message to girls is always believe in yourself. Believe in the dreams and aspirations that you have. Do not be afraid of anyone. No one can stop you. And go and change your future, and go and change the future of girls in Pakistan. Make your dreams come true. And you are the future of this country, and you can change it through your actions. So always believe in yourself.

BASARAT KAZIM: Thank you so much. Thank you.

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think next we will go to Sabira Qureshi. Sabira is another educational practitioner who has worked around the globe on gender issues and [worked] as an independent consultant on poverty alleviation, gender equality, women’s rights, and human rights. And she’s also not just talked about this; she has done something about it through her JAQ Foundation and through the Pehli Kiran Schools that she started in the Islamabad capital area, which among other things deal with education opportunities for children of disadvantaged communities, including those who have been displaced by the fighting in the borderlands. So maybe Sabira can talk about her experience briefly and ask you a question. Sabira?

SABIRA QURESHI: Thank you, Shuja.

Malala, as-salamu alaykum. It’s an absolute pleasure to join you in this conversation—pleasure and privilege. I actually met you many, many years ago in person at an Aurat Foundation seminar in Islamabad, and what struck me and has remained with me throughout all these years as we’ve seen—mashallah—you grow and just become such a world-renowned figure is when I asked you a question: Malala, what do you want to be when you grow up? And without hesitation, you said the prime minister of Pakistan. And that absolutely remained with me, that confidence—so that was amazing.

I know we have a very short time, so I just want to quickly [mention], as Shuja introduced in addition to some of the work I’ve been doing, twenty-five years ago started this very humble initiative with ten children under a tree. And today—mashallah—we have ten schools and more than three thousand children, and we’ve been educating them for the last twenty-five years from the most marginalized, vulnerable communities, which are home to the majority of out-of-school children in Pakistan. So I guess the question to you would be: Is there some way that the Malala Fund’s strategy can amplify the voices of these smaller organizations that are working towards the same goal and have developed these innovative, out-of-the-box solutions but they don’t have the voice and visibility? So is there something that can be done to amplify that?

MALALA: Thank you so much for your question, and very nice to see you again.

And, yes, so Malala Fund is currently working in Pakistan and we have worked there for, I think, three or four years now, and we are supporting local projects and local activists. And we know the power that these local projects can have and we know that if everybody is doing their bit and we all collectively work towards that goal, we will see change very soon. So we never underestimate the power that each and every project and each and every effort has in bringing the change that we all want to see.

And right now Malala Fund has been very focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls’ education. And last year we did research and we looked at the impact that COVID-19 has had on girls’ education and it showed us that twenty million more girls are at risk of losing their education because of this pandemic, because the pandemic has pushed girls to stay at home. And when girls are at home, they are pushed into the housework, or they become financial supporters of the family, or they are pushed into early child marriages because that reduces the burden from the family and they cannot look after the girl. And if they can afford the education of one child, they often prefer to support their boys than the girls. And so there is the risk that these girls will miss out on their education and may not be able to return.

So Malala Fund has been supporting projects in Pakistan that are addressing these issues, that are also trying to work on promoting curriculum through mobile labs and through televisions and that are working together with the local communities, as well. And they conducted separate research in Pakistan, as well, and they did a survey which found that in this lockdown, girls are spending more time on housework than they are on their studying, and it just makes it very difficult for girls to continue their education. And in Punjab, as well, girls are nine times more likely than boys to spend their time on chores than on their schoolwork.

So Malala Fund has supported many champions in Pakistan, and Maliha can provide you with all the information on how to apply for the Champions Network and how to become part of it. But we have more than like fifty or something champions around the world right now, and they are doing incredible work to bring local-level, national-level, provincial-level, and global-level changes for girls’ education.

SHUJA NAWAZ: We have a question from the audience, Malala, and this deals with a call for open information and open government, particularly during the pandemic period, but there’s a problem of digital access. How do you get the disadvantaged communities online? And how do you assist them in getting their education when there are restrictions on what is available to them?

MALALA: So for me personally, when I was involved in this activism for girls’ education, we are often taught this concept that progress will occur with time, and you can always hope for better every year, and even if it’s slow you will see the results. But with this pandemic, things changed for all of us. And the risk of seeing a great loss in the progress that we have made so far, that even losing decades of progress that has been made in education—seeing more girls dropping out of school, seeing girls getting married or, you know, before age eighteen and not having access to education—I think it’s just a reminder that things may not always be as you expect them to be and you should always be prepared for such catastrophic changes like living in a pandemic right now and facing these health crises, which also come as economic crises, and then that affects families financial decisions.

And so in that, now we need to look at the future of education, and what is happening to education right now, and what will be the structure of education in the future. And right now, education has become digital. All of us are attending our classes through our laptops and phones and screens. We are attending classes on Zoom. And that is the education world that we are living in right now. And that raises the question of what happens to the education of girls in this scenario, and what if we have digital education for the next five years or ten years, and what if it becomes the future of education that we are living in a digital education world right now. The early studies have already shown that there is a gap in access to digital tools for girls’ education, and this will be the focus of Malala Fund to ensure that we continue doing our advocacy, our work on pushing for gender equality in access to digital education because there is that gender gap when it comes to that.

And that’s why our champions are actively involved in working on providing girls with the digital tools that they need to have access to education. And Maliha can add more to that, but I think that is—you know, that is the future of education.

And all of us, you know, as civil society members, as government officials, we need to look at what role can we play in this. And I think for government, as well, they have to be gender-sensitive in their policies, in their—in their decision-making. They cannot ignore the fact that there is gender gap in education, access to education, and access to opportunities. And when they also make decisions about access to digital education, they need to be gender-sensitive in that as well to ensure that girls do not miss out. They also cannot ignore the fact that in this pandemic girls will be affected the most and that—especially from poor or low-income backgrounds. So they—you know, we have to be more aware. We cannot just be blind to these facts.

Because of, you know, this blindness that we carry in the policymaking, so many children, so many girls, so many people from minority backgrounds, from low-income backgrounds miss out. So we have to be more conscious. We have to be more aware of these things.

And, Maliha, please add more to this if you would like.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you. And I will ask Maliha if she can hold off on sharing the information with our audience for our next segment.

But before we let you go, a quick question from Aanya Niaz, who is the education advisor and co-founder of the Maple Advisory Group. Aanya, if you can get a quick question in we would let Malala go after that. Thank you.

AANYA NIAZ: Absolutely. Hi, Malala. It’s lovely to meet you. I actually missed you at Oxford by a year, and I think that’s the one thing that makes me sad. I studied education there, so lots to talk about.

OK, but quick, Malala, we’ve been seeing so much evidence and research coming out that the highest dropout rates for girls, especially in Pakistan and developing country context, is at the end of lower secondary, right? Girls aren’t going back to school after grade five, around the age of ten. In your immense experience and interactions with education systems around the world, what advice or ideas or guidance would you have for us to address that monumental loss of girls dropping out? How do we get them to come back or stay on?

MALALA: I think you just, you know, hit the right point. The secondary education of girls is that critical state where girls drop out. Most of the girls who enter primary school drop out of school in class six, class seven. And one report shows that only 13 percent of the girls make it to their grade nine. So we need to address, like, why are these girls dropping out of school. What are the issues that they are facing?

First, I think usually it’s lack of financial support from the families. Parents cannot prioritize the education of girls and they often prioritize the education of their boys. These girls also have the pressure of early child marriages. They are pushed into marriages. They’re forced into it. And There are these cultural norms as well that the education of girls is not important because if not now, later on she’ll get married and she’s not going to bring anything to the family, and you know, all the things that we all have heard ourselves, as well. And you know, these things occur very closely to us. We see it, as well, how, you know, in a household a girl’s future is taken away from her.

So that’s why, you know, so, so much needs to be done. We need policy-level changes. The government and—both the federal and the provincial government, they need to play their role in this [by bringing] in policies that ensure that girls gain their secondary education. We need to ensure that we grant twelve years of safe, quality education to all girls, and with a specific focus on the secondary education so we reduce the dropout of girls and also make sure that girls who do drop out can return to school if they decide to. Even in this pandemic time many girls have not been in a classroom, and it would be so difficult for them to go back to their schools. So we need to put more effort into this.

And you know, Malala Fund’s champions are involved in this. And I’m happy to put you in touch with them, as well, in how they’re working on ensuring that girls do not miss out and can go back to their schools.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you very much, Malala, for that excellent answer. And thank you to my colleagues for asking these very pertinent questions.

I think we’ve probably kept you a little beyond the time we said we would keep you, and we are very grateful. So on behalf of President Fred Kempe and Director Irfan Nooruddin of the South Asia Center, I want to thank you, Malala Yousafzai, for taking the time to talk to us about girls’ education around the world and particularly in Pakistan. We wish you well.

MALALA: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for the opportunity, again.

And I would say goodbye, but before that I will just like to remind everyone that education is one of the most important sustainable investments that we can make. We are concerned about so many issues. We want reduced poverty. We want to tackle climate change. We want to reduce conflicts and wars. We want to ensure that we live in a world of equality, that there is no gender discrimination. But to address all of these issues there is one sustainable solution, and that is girls’ education.

Studies and data and research show us that when you educate a girl it improves economies because it adds up to thirty trillion dollars to the economy.

It helps us tackle climate change because women are more responsible. They make climate-sensitive decisions. And they—when girls are educated, it allows women to then compete for green jobs, contribute animation, and help build a low-carbon economic world.

And you know, it also improves public health. When women are educated, they take care of their own health, their own safety and protection, but also their family’s and everybody else around them.

They’re more aware of their own rights. They’re more aware of their body rights and what is OK and what is not OK.

So we must invest in girls’ education. If we want to see the future of Pakistan, the future of South Asia, and the future of this world improve, and we want to see it equal, we want to see it more peaceful, and we want to see it greener, safer, and freer, then we must invest in girls’ education and ensure that all girls around the world can have safe, free, and quality education.

With that, I would like to say goodbye to you all. And it was very nice talking to you all. Bye-bye.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you.

MALALA: Thank you. Thank you.

SHUJA NAWAZ: OK. Time for us to move to the next segment. We will get our practitioners together with Maliha Khan and move on to the next segment of our internal discussion.

So welcome back, Maliha Khan, the chief programs officer of the Malala Fund, and of course nonresident senior fellow of the South Asia Center. Maliha is joined by our three practitioners who joined the earlier question-and-answer session, so Basarat Kazim, Sabira Qureshi, and Aanya Niaz.

Maliha, as you were listening in and particularly on this question of creating champions and how people can connect with you on that, what were the principal takeaways on your part?

MALIHA KHAN: Thank you. Thank you, Shuja, for that.

I think that I won’t answer the question of how do you apply to be a champion, et cetera. I think the pertinent question there is when you’re tackling [an] issue as big as education and access to education, retention and quality of education in South Asia, and you’re talking about well over a quarter of the out-of-school children in general and girls in particular coming from this region, I think that the way forward is combining all the different mechanisms and forces we have. And Malala Fund in particular believes in local actors, believes in small organizations and their ability to affect local change, as well as using international actors to act in the right way and to make the right decisions that will be optimal for that.

So my main takeaway is that we should all listen to Malala—continue to invest in education, particularly girls’ education, and that it is the local actors and the champions that are out there working in their local communities who are going to be the best able to do that.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you.

Basarat, any special takeaways from you? And also, if you can shed a little more light on your STEAM initiative I think that would be interesting for our audience…

BASARAT KAZIM: Actually, what I would like to talk about is the networking. And I would be interested in knowing if the Malala Fund could actually start a platform where the girls who are being looked at in the programs that you are running in the eight countries could come together and become mentors and influencers for each other. Because we started projects like the Alif Laila, where children were working with children, and we found them very strong and very effective. And in the work that we are doing, especially in that STEAM project you were talking about, Shuja, the girls need a lot of handholding and they need mentorship. And sometimes when pairs are interacting and, you know, just helping them to feel good and confident, I think that would be a very big thing. Also, it would connect cultures.

So I don’t know what you would say to that, Maliha.

MALIHA KHAN: Yeah, it’s an excellent idea. I am a very strong proponent that. There’s a saying that says “nothing about us without us.” So there’s lots and lots of organizations that speak on behalf of girls, and I think the key thing is actually to allow girls to speak on behalf of themselves. When they’re not muzzled, when they’re not stopped and they’re given a platform, they are the best advocates for their own rights, as is every person who’s advocating for themselves.

So we’ve been doing that through our work with the different champions. We have lots of girl-focused activities. And we will also be launching a program that specifically focuses on girls and their voice and agency and their abilities to advocate for themselves, because as Malala has often said it’s not—she is—she but just represents the millions of girls who are out there who are advocating for themselves and provides a voice for that. And we would like to help in that—in that endeavor.


SHUJA NAWAZ: This may also be something that my friends at the South Asia Center will be taking note of because this is perhaps something they could also think of in terms of the Pakistan initiative to help recreate a network similar to the Emerging Leaders Program that we once had.

Let me ask Sabira what she thinks was the main takeaway. And also, maybe shed some light on how the children from displaced communities that are part of your disadvantaged children whom you are supporting through your school systems, how—if any efforts are being made to integrate them into Pakistan—wider Pakistani society.

SABIRA QURESHI: Thank you, Shuja.

There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done on that account because the communities we work with are the most unserved, marginalized communities. And they don’t have access. Access is one of the key challenges, and for girls, it becomes even more challenging because just—because of all the other safety, et cetera issues, they just don’t reach any school, whether public or private sector. So our community schools go into the heart of the community, and that’s how we connect with them.

But a quick question for Maliha. It would help us if you could just share just a few key lessons with all the years of Malala Fund experience. What has worked best and what has not worked in terms of approaches and impact? And also, how some of the work of the Malala Fund, the benefits from that have reached the marginalized segments, children—out-of-school children who reside mostly in these vulnerable communities, particularly since some of the education champions that are supported by Malala Fund are for-profit entities. So how do you ensure that that sort of trickle-down benefits are reached?…

MALIHA KHAN: Yeah, happy to talk about that.

So Malala Fund has been working, you know, for almost seven years now in South Asia. For about six of those, Pakistan was our first country where we made the first investments in. We mostly invest, actually, in civil society organizations. We have a couple of innovative for-profits that are doing interesting types of social-enterprise work which we think is also an excellent way of going forward. So, for instance, in Pakistan, we have AzCorp that is publishing local-language and national-language materials for children because we know that a child in Pakistan never sees a book outside of their school curriculum. So having some material available for them. So that’s the work we’re doing with them.

We found that there’s no one solution. What we found works best is a formula. And the formula that works best is support a local organization that has a really interesting and innovative idea; support them not just for the implementation of the idea but also in creating and making their organization and institution vibrant and strong, because that’s imperative in them being able to take that forward; and then also invest in them being able to scale that up somehow, because we have to make it sustainable.

Now, that scaleup can be in many, many different ways. It’s often trying to get it embedded into government processes and structures because, as I said in the beginning, we’re very strong believers and proponent in the long-term, you know, sustainable impact is going to come from the government and the government investing in this.

And so I think the real move for the types of institutions and organizations that might be listening to us here today is we’ve gone very far down that route of holding these local organizations accountable for the delivery, not investing in their overheads, not investing in their organizations and institutions, and not investing in the sustainability of the initiative. We are very focused on the outputs—How many girls did you get into school? How many children did you reach? How many heads can we count as a return on our investment?—without thinking that, OK, when that finishes, what’s going to be left for that organization to work with?

So we are trying to turn that on its head. And it’s this formula that we believe is key in making the biggest impact in the longer term and also being the most sustainable in the longer term, and that’s what we have a vision for.

SHUJA NAWAZ: I think a key element in this, Maliha, will be how do you assess the quality, not simply the numerical output.

So let me ask Aanya in her experience, particularly in helping develop curricula, how do you work to craft a modern curriculum, especially for girls in Pakistan? And how do you measure that success over time along the lines that Maliha was talking about?

AANYA NIAZ: Excellent questions. Thank you, Shuja, for posing them.

I think that the power lies in what Malala has said, what Maliha has said, and actually what Basarat, Aanya, and Sabira have said as well. For so long, we on the outside have been trying to [find a solution] for somebody who’s on the inside. There is a distance between us and those we want to empower. We keep having dialogue, we keep engaging, we keep coming up with initiatives, but far away from those we want to help.

So, for an example, Malala Fund’s Champions Network initiative really resonates with me because for once we’re privileging the voices of those we’re trying to help. We’re letting them tell us what works for them. We’re not trying to discourage girls of any age, any socioeconomic background from being their own voices.

So, for me, to keep it brief, in order to inform the development of a modern curriculum, we need to speak to students who this curriculum is to be made for. We need to understand their contexts, their aspirations, their desires, the obstacles they face, the vocabulary they thrive on, stories they want to hear, stories that resonate in their households, adventures and stories and nursey rhymes that will resonate with them, and make a curriculum for those by privileging the voice for whom the curriculum is for.

In terms of measurement, I think I’d like to quickly just mention we tend to have ambitions, as Maliha was saying, that sort of are very different from the ambitions we have for high-income students: We focus on attainment, literacy, numeracy primarily. When we talk about low-income students. We say, are there enough of them in school, are they staying in school, how do we get data on that.

The way you can actually, in my opinion, be more thoughtful in how you measure success so you can sustain it is by devising, monitoring, and evaluation frameworks that capture variables that matter to the audience—that matter to the girls, that matter to their families. We need to understand internal and external variables that surround their understanding of education. Why do they want to learn? Ten years from now, what is the future of education for them? What does digital access mean to them? If we’re going to measure if a child is—can use a laptop or not, we need to understand what the use of that laptop is for the child, right?

So I’ll stop myself there.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you. That’s a very good point.

And we have a couple of minutes left. Let me quickly ask Maliha—and maybe the others can chime in as needed—very briefly. We’ve been talking a lot about government—government should do this, government should do that. My own experience—and I may be an outlier—is that government is often flat-footed, and government is slow, and government takes a very long time to do things, whereas civil society and private sector can get things done in spite of government. So what is the role of civil society in this transformation that we are aiming for? Maybe Maliha can give us an answer based on her experience.

MALIHA KHAN: Shuja said the government is slow, but education is a long-term, you know, thing that we’re investing in. I think we’ve seen tremendous change in the last twenty, thirty years in primary education in making it available, particularly for girls. I think the next challenge is getting it to that secondary education.

Civil society’s role. I think in some instances we can fill in some of the gaps, but at the end of the day the provision of education, the quality of education, the retention around it, the safety around education, the government plays a very, very vital role. And civil society has to support the government in creating demand from the citizens, support the citizens to hold the governments accountable, and also help the government in making sure that quality, appropriate education is available. And that I do believe is the role of civil society.

Pakistan is one of the most charitable countries in the world, and we often really like to open schools. But as anyone who’s opened a school knows, it is a tremendously difficult, long-term, and very expensive venture. So I think a tremendous investment would be to help around these other areas in allowing the government to perform its responsibilities.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you so much, Maliha.

And my apologies to the other participants. I just realized that I was looking at my clock and I’ve run out of time. But it clearly shows the need for us to continue this conversation, and I hope that we will be able to get all of you together again in a while to see where things have gone and see what can be done for the future.

Again, my thanks to Malala Yousafzai, to Maliha Khan, to Basarat Kazim, to Sabira Qureshi, as well as to Aanya Niaz, for making this such an interesting and useful discussion. And we wish everyone well, and I will be seeing you in another conversation in a few weeks’ time.

I’m Shuja Nawaz. Thank you for being with us.

Image: Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai poses with teenage girls from Complexo da Penha who work with football organization Street Child United at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes