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What is Malala Day?

On July 12, the United Nations recognizes Malala Day in honor of education activist Malala Yousafzai. It’s also her birthday and the day she spoke to the UN in 2013. In this article, we’ll discuss why Malala has a day, how the day is celebrated, what barriers threaten universal education access, and what you can do to honor the mission of Malala Day.

Who is Malala Yousafzai?

On July 12, 1997, Malala was born in Mingora, Pakistan. Her father, Ziauddin, ran a girls’ school and wanted to make sure his daughter received the same education as a boy would. Malala began speaking about education rights in 2008 when she was only 11. Her activism included blogging for the BBC. In 2009, the Taliban shut down schools for girls where Malala lived. Despite the danger, she continued to speak out and became known internationally. In 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

In 2012, a Taliban gunman entered Malala’s school bus and shot the 15-year-old in the head. She survived. On her 16th birthday in 2013, while wearing the late Benazir Bhutto’s shawl, Malala gave a speech to the United Nations on the topic of youth education. When discussing the Taliban’s assassination attempt, she said, “They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices.” Since her speech, the UN has designated July 12 as Malala Day, though Malala has said: “Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”

In 2014, Malala was named the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her work promoting equal education rights for all children. At 17, she remains the youngest Nobel Laureate at the time of this article’s writing. In 2020, Malala graduated from Oxford University with a philosophy, politics, and economics degree. With her father, she’s the co-founder of Malala Fund, an international nonprofit organization advocating for girls’ education.

What happens on Malala Day?

Malala Day was established to honor Malala Yousafzai, but as she’s emphasized, it’s also a day to recognize advocacy for education rights all over the world. You can find many references to #MalalaDay on Twitter from people like Michelle Obama and organizations like UNESCO, Girls Who Code, and Muslims for Peace. Many organizations also recognize Malala Day as an opportunity to highlight the important work being done for education. One example is HundrED, a global education nonprofit working to improve education through innovations. In a 2019 blog, the organization described innovations like the Varkey Foundation’s “Making Ghanaian Girls Great” project, which uses satellite-enabled and solar-powered technology to deliver education to students in Ghana. Over the past three years, the MGCubed Project has impacted over 36,000 students. The HundrED blog also lists a music initiative in Afghanistan and a STEM-and-dance program in the United States.

Malala Day is also a great opportunity for organizations, schools, and individuals to learn more about Malala’s work and the work of other young activists. Malala has written several books, including I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up (2014), Malala’s Magic Pencil (2017), and We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories From Refugee Girls Around the World (2019). A 2015 documentary – “He Named Me Malala” – follows Malala’s story through her 2013 speech to the UN. Malala may be one of the best-known young activists, but she’s hardly the only example. On July 12, consider learning about young people like Bana al-Abed, a Syrian girl who – with her mother’s help – documented the siege of Aleppo on Twitter when she was just 7-years old. Bana has since written Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace and My Name Is Bana.

Why is education access so important?

Education is a human right and the focus of Article 26 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a three-part article stating everyone has the right to education, which should be free at least through the elementary and fundamental stages. It also states that education “shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The article also gives parents the right to choose their children’s education. Education is so significant because of the impact it has throughout a person’s life. Someone’s education affects the kind of job they can get, how much money they’ll make, and how independent they can be. Research has even shown when women are educated, it leads to fewer maternal deaths, fewer child deaths, improved health in children, and higher vaccination rates. When people receive a good education, their individual lives – and society as a whole – improve.

What is the status of education in the world?

Malala Day focuses on education, especially education for girls, who are historically marginalized when it comes to schooling. What is the state of education rights in the world? Let’s look at a 2019 UNESCO Institute For Statistics fact sheet, which highlights the most recent stats on trends at global and regional levels based on an adjusted calculation method. Why was there an adjustment? The goal was to get a more precise estimate on the out-of-school population. Based on the new method, there’s been no progress in reducing out-of-school numbers. In 2018, 258.4 million children, adolescents, and youth were out of school. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest out-of-school rates for all age groups and the highest rate of exclusion. 19% of primary-school-age children are denied an education. The fact sheet concludes that we’re still far away from universal primary and secondary education access.

What about girls and education? The good news from the Institute for Statistics fact sheet: gender parity in out-of-school rates is getting better overall despite inequalities at regional and country levels. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has disrupted education for girls. UNESCO published a new fact sheet as part of the #HerEducationOurFuture initiative, finding that around 11 million girls may not go back to school. Girls 12-17 years old living in low and lower-income countries are at a higher risk of dropping out. This is especially concerning for countries like Benin, Cameroon, Mali, Pakistan, and Senegal where the poorest girls go to school for less than 2 years on average. The pandemic has also affected education investments. Of the 29 countries surveyed in the report, ⅔ of low and lower-middle-income countries cut their education budgets. Girls are the group most likely to be affected by these cuts.

What keeps children out of school?

There are many barriers preventing children from getting the education they deserve. According to UNICEF, poverty is a persistent reason. Schooling often comes with costs and fees. While they may not seem exuberant to some, many people simply cannot afford to spend money on school for their children. The cost of school supplies, lunches, and transportation adds up quickly. Poverty is also a driver of child labor and child marriage, both of which prevent a child from accessing education. Based on UNICEF stats, more than 1 in 4 children (ages 5-17 years old) living in the least developed countries are used for labor. Around 650 million girls alive today were married as children; around 12 million girls under 18 are married off every year.

Political instability, conflicts, and natural disasters also restrict a child’s education. The quality of education can also be negatively impacted by a lack of trained teachers, poor infrastructure, inadequate materials, and a child’s home life. If a child is not getting enough food or is also working while attending school, they won’t be able to focus as much. There’s also a concern about the digital divide. ⅔ of the world’s school-aged kids don’t have access to the internet at home, and in our increasingly digital world, a lack of internet has a significant impact on a person’s education and opportunities. To ensure equal education access to all children, barriers and restrictions must be addressed and remedied.

How can people support the mission of Malala Day?

Depending on who you are, how much time you have, and the tools and resources at your disposal, there are many different ways to support education access for the world’s children. The first thing anyone can do is learn how countries – including your own – are upholding education as a human right. You should also track any agreements, laws, or policies a country has signed on to. The Observatory from UNESCO is a great place to start. It includes a library that collects Member States’ laws, constitutions, decrees, programs, and other plans that relate to the right to education. Holding power accountable to its promises and responsibilities is essential work for all human rights defenders. If you’re a writer or active online, you can commit to raising awareness and sharing resources on July 12 using whatever platforms you have. That can include posting on social media, sharing or making videos, and more.

Are you part of an organization as an employee or volunteer? Organizations can support the mission of Malala Day through events, educational resources, and fundraisers. Even if your organization doesn’t focus on education access, it can still connect people to organizations that do. Most areas have groups that support teachers and students, whether it’s paying school fees, buying school supplies, arranging transportation, or volunteering in classrooms and after-school programs. Individuals, grassroots groups, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations can all play a role in supporting education access locally, nationally, and internationally. Malala Day on July 12 is a great day to start.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.