Proof that one voice can have an impact

ONE child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.

Proof that one voice can have an impact

These were the concluding remarks made by Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in her historic address to the UN General Assembly last week.

That a teenager from the mountainous Swat Valley region of Pakistan should be delivering a speech in one of the world’s most venerated and renowned seats of power might, under normal circumstances, be deemed significant in itself. That is was the day of her 16th birthday might also be considered momentous.

In truth, however, the most significant aspect of this whole occasion was that Malala was alive and in a position to deliver her powerful speech at all.

Malala first came to some prominence in late 2008 when she started to write a blog for the BBC under an assumed name about the difficulties in accessing education under Taliban rule.

At this time, the Taliban had imposed a ban on girls’ education throughout Malala’s homeland. It became so popular that the blog, initially written in Urdu, was translated into English.

Her writings were non-political but clearly reflected her desire for female education. They mostly talked about her school, studies, life at home, and friends.

In Jan 2009, she wrote: “I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms and come to school wearing normal clothes instead. So I decided to wear my favourite pink dress.

“Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses. During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taliban would object to it.”

Unperturbed, Malala began appearing on Pakistani TV news channels under her real identity. She was awarded a national peace prize by the Pakistani government, nominated for an international award, and made several public appearances as a campaigner for girls’ rights to education.

Ultimately, her courage and candour put Malala in mortal danger. On Oct 9, 2012, a Taliban militia boarded her school bus, asked which girl was Malala, and shot her at point-blank range in the head.

Mercifully, she survived. Following treatment in Pakistan and latterly in the UK, where she was fitted with of a custom-made titanium plate to repair damage to her skull, as well as a cochlear implant to help her recover hearing, she returned to school in March.

Malala has gone on to speak up for the one in three girls worldwide who are denied an education due to violence, discrimination, poverty, and practices such as child marriage, when in her address she said: “I stand here, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but for all the girls and boys. I raise up my voice — not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

Last week, Malala spoke for girls such as Faridah, a 17-year-old from Pakistan, who left school aged 12 and got married at 15, but who is determined to continue her education. Unfortunately, her family don’t agree and they’re using violence to put an end to it.

“While my mum supports my plight for an education, she is torn between my right to go to school and her family honour,” says Faridah. “Sometimes things get so bad my mum caves under pressure from male members of the family and beats me because, by wanting to go to school, my husband could use it as grounds for divorce, bringing dishonour on the family.”

Malala has also lent her support to Plan’s drive for girl’s education called “Raise your Hand”, which is part of Plan’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign. It is the first time Malala has supported an international non-governmental organisation’s education initiative.

The programme is working to support millions more girls, girls such as Faridah, to realise their right to an education currently denied. Plan is at the forefront in helping children to achieve their potential and last year worked with 84m children worldwide.

In many countries where Plan works, issues such as child marriage are contributors to early school dropout. Every day, 39,000 girls under 18 are married. In some countries, such as Niger, early marriage rates are as high 75%.

So far, more than 670,000 people around the world have raised their hands. The goal is to reach 1m raised hands by October, when Plan will present them to the UN General Assembly calling for girls’ education to be prioritised by world leaders and additional funding be allocated to this sector.

Malala proved that one voice can have an impact. We all must join her and push for girls’ rights and education, so that every girl can take their rightful place in the classroom, as she so eloquently said to the General Assembly.

“They thought that the bullets would silence us,” said Malala. “But they failed. And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices… We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education for everyone.

“No one can stop us. We will speak for our rights and we will bring change through our voice. Our words can change the world.”

* David Dalton is CEO of Plan Ireland. To join Malala and “Raise your Hand” for girls’ education go to www.plan.ie

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