Last month, when 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot and wounded by the Taliban in Pakistan, the world responded with outrage. That she was simply defending her right to an education made the event even more astounding. Her almost superhuman courage represents the face of an entire generation of girls around the world who struggle against extraordinary odds to get an education. Malala's struggle is at once unique and ubiquitous.
Most girls in the developing world are not shot on a school bus. Yet they continue to face high barriers that keep them from school and make education an uphill struggle. Women still comprise two thirds of the world's illiterate. But over the last few decades, research has shown that girls and their families accrue significant benefits when they are educated. Just one extra year of schooling beyond the average boosts a girl's eventual wages by 10 percent to 20 percent, and women who are educated are more likely to have healthy children. Low- and middle-income countries where women are under-educated compared with men pay a significant price: about $92 billion a year in economic loss, according to Plan International.
But when girls do go to school, they're often stymied by their second-class status in society. School itself can be dangerous for girls. They run the risk of being attacked, sexually assaulted or abducted on the way to and from school and of being victimized by teachers, school staff or classmates. Parents then pull their daughters out, not wanting to risk further violence, while those girls who stay have a hard time learning when they fear for their safety.
Curricula, teachers and schools are not set up for girls to succeed: Most teachers in developing countries are male, since there are not enough educated women available to teach. Deep gender bias in the larger society is reflected in the classroom in teaching methods, grading and curricula. Very often, schools do not have separate restrooms for girls, leading them to drop out when they reach puberty.
When money is tight at home, boys almost always come first: Families struggling to afford school fees, uniforms and transportation view girls' education as a privilege. Girls who have traditionally helped their mothers to care for younger siblings, cook or work the farm often finish hours of chores after school, pushing study into the night, with little or no electricity.
Despite all this, today there are millions more girls in school than ever before. It's not an accident: donor agencies and the aid community, as well as many national governments, have made girls' education a major priority over the last few decades. But this also reflects a sea change in attitudes around the world as families and communities begin to understand and feel the benefits of educating girls.
Perhaps the biggest unsung hero of Malala's story is her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who founded the Khushal Public School that his daughter attended. Her courage is backed by a parent who fully supports her education in a deeply conservative, Islamic, rural setting. Families like Malala's all over the world are making sacrifices large and small, and often taking major social and economic risks, by sending girls to school.
While it's gratifying to see the unanimous outrage the Malala incident has generated, it's not enough. Will it translate into the political will needed to make real investments to get girls the education that is their due?
Our country's policy in Pakistan is a case in point. If our goal in the region is security, stability and combating extremism, there are few investments better than education, which opens minds and doors to better economic opportunity for girls and their families. Of the more than $1 billion in largely security-related U.S. assistance planned for Pakistan for 2013, just $80 million is planned for education-related projects. Over the last few years, our investments in education for Pakistan have actually declined.
In the post-election congressional budget battles, legislators are under intense pressure to cut assistance dollars focused on education, health and poverty-focused programs to Pakistan and other nations — all of which amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. This is completely counterproductive and would contribute to making life worse for girls like Malala. The best way to honor her amazing life story is to first recognize the enormous risks that she and other girls take to get to and from school, and then support their efforts to achieve a better life.
Ritu Sharma, a Crownsville resident, is co-founder and president of Women Thrive Worldwide (www.womenthrive.org), which advocates with the U.S. government on global women's issues. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.