This month the United Nations secretary-general appointed Malala Yousafzai as a UN Messenger of Peace to promote girls education, an acknowledgement of the courage and passion of millions of students who take great risks to learn in the face of adversity and conflict.
Yousafzai, 19, has been a tenacious advocate for the rights of all children, and girls in particular, to go to school and receive a quality education, free from discrimination and fear.
Because of her advocacy for girls’ rights to education, Yousafzai was shot and severely wounded by a gunman as she was taking a bus home from school in Swat, Pakistan, in 2012. The militant Islamist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility.
“I was just 10 when more than 400 schools were destroyed,” she recalled in her 2014 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “Education went from being a right to being a crime. Girls were stopped from going to school.”
Threats to education in Pakistan were spotlighted again by the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 that left 145 people dead, most of them children.
Access to education in Pakistan, for girls and boys, remains deeply compromised. Human Rights Watch’s March 2017 report, “‘Dreams Turned into Nightmares’: Attacks on Students, Teachers, and Schools in Pakistan,” documents militant violence that has disrupted the education of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly girls.
Pakistan’s militant Islamist groups, including the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and their affiliates, use attacks on schools and universities to foster intolerance and exclusion, to target symbols of the government, and, particularly, to drive girls out of school.
The Pakistani government does not collect specific data on the number of attacks on schools and universities. However, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were 867 attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 fatalities and 724 injuries. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack recorded at least 838 attacks on schools between 2009 and 2012, leaving hundreds of schools damaged.
Pakistan’s government could recognize Malala Yousafzai’s courage by developing a comprehensive policy for protecting students – especially girls – teachers, schools, and universities from attacks and from military use of schools. As an important first step, Pakistan should endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international agreement to protect students, teachers, and schools.