At UNESCO, World Leaders Come Together for Girls' Education
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other political and religious leaders gathered at UNESCO on December 10, 2012, to honor Malala Yousafzai and to take a stand against threats to girls’ education- from poverty and indifference to extremism.
After she was targeted for assassination by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai became a symbol of the fight for equal access to education. Girls continue to represent the majority of the world’s 61 million out-of-school children, and, as Malala’s case vividly demonstrates, some of them must literally risk their lives to get an education. The December 10 event was co-organized by Pakistan and UNESCO to mobilize the international community around this issue.
While at UNESCO, President Zardari announced two important initiatives to this end- a $10 million donation to UNESCO to promote girls’ education where it is most fragile and a new initiative by his government to send 3 million more girls to school. President Zardari evoked the challenges faced by Pakistan, declaring, “We are facing two forces in the country, Malala represents the forces of peace and we are fighting with the forces of darkness, hatred and violence.” Zardari also came to UNESCO with a special statement from Malala, who is currently recovering from the attack in a British hospital. In her statement, which was read by a young girl from Yemen, Malala expressed appreciation for having gotten a second chance at life, and concluded by saying that “the sooner all children are able to go to school, the sooner I will get better.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in the advocacy event by video, highlighting the broader issues at stake with girls education. “Getting an education is important to the future of every girl," she said. "It’s also important, though, for all of us, collectively, because when men and women have the same opportunities to an education, societies are better off. Economies flourish.”
The Secretary was also represented at UNESCO by Deputy Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador David Pearce. Citing a moving encounter with an education activist in Afghanistan, Ambassador Pearce stressed the need for the international community to remain engaged and present there to help protect women and girls from intimidation by extremist forces.
Other official speakers included the Director General of the Islamic Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaljri, and a representative of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt. Both denounced the violence against Malala and insisted that Islam fully supports education for girls and women. Dr. Husun Banu Ghazanfar, Minister of Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan, stressed the need to do more for protect girls, noting that such attacks occur almost daily in her country.
The former Presidents of Finland and Chile, Marja Halonen and Michele Bachelet, gave impassioned remarks about the value of educating girls. Gordon Brown, acting in his capacity as UN Special Envoy for Global Education, issued a strong call for action and announced a planned Summit for Education in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 2013.
UNESCO, meanwhile, reaffirmed its commitment to work with governments, educators and other stakeholders to remove existing barriers to equality in education- barriers that threaten both the lives of individual girls and the well-being of societies as a whole.