That’s a snapshot of Malala getting chummy with the Foreign Minister of Norway, in all his Anglo-Saxon glory. Malala spoke as part of a panel at the UN’s #educationfirst conference, which focused on global education initiatives, and the importance of universal primary education for girls and boys. Universal education is a core priority (and target) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and a primary mechanism for eradicating poverty, achieving equal rights, and improving health outcomes in developing countries.
Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban, as she tried to board a bus to attend school in the Khyber province of Pakistan. She could have easily dominated the proceedings with her inspiring story, and her unflinching commitment to education for girls (especially in countries beset by political and religious repression, terrorism, etc). Yet she shared the stage with other dignitaries; Gordon Brown, UN special envoy for global education, the Director General of UNESCO (Irina Bokova), the First Lady of China (Peng Uyuan), and the President of Korea (Park Geun–Hye). With the exception of Malala, Gordon Brown spoke the most passionately and forcefully. As a former head of state, perhaps Brown had less pressure to trumpet the educational triumphs of his home country, and more incentive to focus on international humanitarian concerns, such as the vital importance of securing education for the many thousands of refugees fleeing civil war and political strife throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Labour in the UK would be proud of Brown’s advocacy, especially when viewed against David Cameron’s pathetically inept response to the refugee issue.
The First Lady of China spoke about China’s commitment to leveraging education to lift many millions of Chinese out of poverty (she only spoke anecdotally, and very gracefully skipped over China’s human rights abuses), and the President of Korea highlighted her country’s domestic expenditures on education, and its commitment to constructing and subsidizing first rate schools throughout the country.
Malala, wearing a beautiful and garish pink sash around her head, spoke in personal terms, but she did not draw attention to herself. She kept her focus on universal education for girls, but not simply that. She emphasized the importance of quality universal education, so that schooling is not merely associated with the development of literacy skills, or the simple fact that girls attend a school. She argued that girls should have stimulating, challenging, inspiring learning experiences extending from primary school, to the University level, and that schools should empower girls to fulfill their creative and intellectual talents.
It’s easy to leave the UN feeling warm and fuzzy, because politicians speak in such enlightened, cozy, and
charismatic terms about education as a human right. What they actually do to change the reality in developing countries is less certain, because policy very often fails to serve (or secure) democratic and human rights. As long as we have nation-states, countries will always spend more money on arms than schools. That’s a given. And Malala may very well be a symbolic tool the UN uses for less than noble purposes; she is given celebrity treatment, she is ushered about to take place in symposia, seminars, and press conferences, etc, and she is feted by every foreign delegation, even ones that support stoning for adultery. But there’s no debating her importance, because education, on some level, has to be rooted in symbols and stories. And she serves a crucial purpose, even if that purpose is to draw attention to universal education. Finally, there’s also much reassurance to be found in the UN’s commitment to the MDG, and the common cause many countries find (throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa) when it comes to the value of education. Cheers to that.