Stories of hope and horror regarding girls’ education were heard at the high‐level panel discussion at the “Stand up for Malala – Girls’ Education is a Right” advocacy event at UNESCO headquarters on 10 December, Human Rights Day.
Moderated by BBC journalist Zeinab Badawi, the discussion was part of a high-level advocacy event featuring Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, Jean‐Marc Ayrault, Prime Minister of France and Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland. They joined UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and other high-level international officials to honour girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai – who is recovering from an attempt on her life – and to accelerate progress towards Education for All.
Sheikh Waqas Akram, Minister of Education of Pakistan, spoke of his country’s commitment to education as demonstrated by its new law on universal primary education. Asked about the perception that Malala's defence of education was somehow pro-'Western', he said that since the attack on Malala, "the silent majority had found a voice" and were standing up for girls' education as a right. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "galvanize everybody in favour of girls' education".
“Malala stories” every day
“In Afghanistan, Malala stories are happening every day,” declared Dr Husun Banu Ghazanfar, the first Minister of Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan. Speaking in Dari, she told a shocked audience that at 8 am that morning, a woman official had been assassinated, another had been killed a month previously, and that in the last eight years attempts had been made to poison 8,000 girl students, and acid attacks had also occurred. But more girls are now attending school and women are making inroads into public life, she noted.
David Pearce, Representative of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that “nothing was closer to Ms Clinton’s heart” than the issue of girls’ education.
“I am an example of a woman in a senior position” declared Noura Alfayez, Vice-Minister of Education for Girls of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the status of girls and women in her country. Despite challenges, girls’ and women’s education is making progress, she said.
Speaking for the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt, his representative was categorical about the fact that Islam made no distinction between men and women. He explained that mosques were traditionally places of learning for both sexes. “Using Islam as an excuse to stop girls from going to school is not valid”, he declared.
Discussing the substantial gender gap at secondary level in Indonesia, Prof. Wiendu Nuryanti, Vice-Minister of Cultural Affairs remarked that “equality is about attitudes”.
“We accord great importance to education,” said Slimane Chikh, Permanent Observer of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to the UN office in Geneva. “Our mission is to address the challenges of the 21st century together. The promotion of women’s rights is at the forefront of this mission”, he said.
Maria Arnholm, State Secretary to the Minister of Gender Equality of Sweden explained that her country had one of the highest levels of gender equality in the world because of its early commitment to general education. By the 1880s education was compulsory in Sweden.
Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, explained that in many countries in conflict, “schools are where the armed forces congregate”. This created a climate of violence, especially towards girls, so parents kept them at home.
Kishore Singh, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education reminded participants that education was an inalienable right and states had a legal obligation to fulfil this right.
During the event, teenagers from all over the world read statements and testimonials. In a statement of commitment, participants condemned the brutal attempt on Malala’s life and pledged to help end violence and discrimination against girls. Participants also committed to a renewed push to meet the Education For All goals by 2015 and to eliminate the obstacles that prevent girls from going to school.