Presidential Debate: 7 Reasons Why Obama and Romney Should Address Malala Yousafzai

“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor. All I want is an education,” said Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani activist championing equitable access to education for girls. Late last week, Taliban gunmen attempted to kill her for speaking out against the continuing elimination of educational programs for Pakistani women. Malala is currently lying in a hospital bed with an infected bullet wound, and her ability to re-gain strength is still unknown.

The United States government should support Pakistani activists fighting to deliver an education for every child. In addition, ordinary Americans should stand with the Pakistani driven campaign to build more schools, train more teachers, and support families whose daughters regularly attend school. Equal access to education for women is equally an American and Pakistani ideal. Achieving this goal can make radical Islamic rhetoric irrelevant to the Pakistan's impoverished population.

Between 2001 and 2009, the Taliban destroyed 401 schools in the Swat province. 70% of these schools were for girls. This targeted discrimination motivated Malala, who was not yet a teenager, to speak up and advocate on behalf of her peers. Fearing retribution, she began her awareness campaign under an online pseudonym. As the Pakistani army succeeded in brushing away a regiment of localized radical militants, she took her online advocacy to the streets.

Malala's voice represents the majority of ordinary Pakistanis opposed to violent behavior and religious extremism. Most everyday Muslims understand that when the Qur’an says "seeking knowledge is a mandatory duty of every Muslim," it does not include any exclusions. While America faces its own pernicious achievement gaps, we have made important strides since Brown v. Board of Education. Other representative democracies have not.

This is not an opportunity to deride the faith of billions and belittle an entire country. It is a window of time to empower poor Pakistani children, and help them make Pakistan's posterity more safe, more educated, and more democratic.

Here are seven reasons everyday Americans should stand with Malala Yousafzai and why her work should be a critical component of United States foreign policy:

1. Politically, Pakistan is on the Brink: Working-class Pakistanis are mobilizing at unprecedented levels against an increasingly extreme Taliban.They are planning small candlelight vigils, organizing well-attended political rallies, writing newspaper articles, and occupy the airwaves in order to pressure the Pakistani government into taking action on Pakistan's radical organizations. The assasination attempt on Malala Yousufzhai, once a political maverick, has initiated a groundswell of calls for Pakistan to abandon its reluctance to taking extremist sanctuaries in the North Western province of Waziristan.

Even the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), known for being sympathetic to the Taliban, is taking a harder line against violent extremism and its detrimental affects on Pakistan's youth.

As these efforts continue, Pakistan must maintain its focus on spearheading education reform. One of Malala's goals is to create a political party dedicated to women's education and anti-poverty initiatives. Americans can appreciate the power of third-party efforts to sway sold-out politicians. Whether its the tea party or the green party, we acknowledge how third parties move legislative agendas during sharply gridlocked political environments.

2. Governments in industrialized Areas are Expanding Access to Education: Thanks to World Bank funding, highly industrialized provinces like Punjab have already started to expand access to education. They built schools, hired more teachers, and trained these teachers intensively. For the first time, public schools are becoming attractive alternatives to expensive schools, making it more likely that lower-class communities will send their children to school. In Punjab, approximately 59% of girls attend school, far higher than any other province.

3. The Rural Fight is On, But Weak Without Governmental Support: NGOs are attempting to build schools in remote areas. Maryam Bibi, founder of Khwendo Kor, has been organizing families in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She offers courses to improve mothers' literacy skills, and gets families to commit to sending their daughters to schools. In fact, these inkind villagers supply her space to set up the schools. Despite the generosity, start-up costs are unmanagemable.

Bibi is running over 150 schools entirely on her own. Sustainable funding remains elusive, and until this can be solved, she will be unable to continue. She acknowledges, like many charter schools in the United States, that she will not be able to keep these innovative schools open without government support.

Supporting the grassroots campaign against extremist leaders can help Khwendo Ko and other organizations expand their reach. If you look at their jobs page you will notice something interesting. They are hiring mostly 'Social Organizers,' because their biggest battle remains in achieving buy in from rural families. Families are afraid of retaliation, and they need to be educated on the importance of having their daughters attend school.

4. It's not Just Girls, it's Boys, Women, and Men Too: According to UNESCO, 30% of Pakistanis live in extreme educational poverty receiving less than two years of education. In Pakistan, 6.8 million primary age children out of a total 19.5 million primary age group are out of school. Sixty percent of these 6.8 million children are females. The city of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, populates around 6.4 million. Needless to say, the issue is more than widely felt. While access to education for Pakistan's poor is addressed, policies must close the gender gap as well.

If grassroots organizations like Khwnedo Ko and newly formulated political parties dedicated to education access can maintain vitality, they will be able to influence policy formulation.

5. A Clear Symptom of Poverty and Lack of Education is Rampant Radicalization: As the Council on Foreign Relations has written and counterterrorism expert John Brennan frequently discusses, extremist groups in Pakistan are exploiting Pakistan's lack of access to quality education. In fact, many offer free education to Pakistani children as a mechanism of indoctrinating them. Without an education, young Pakistanis can not get jobs and play a formative role in their society.

Providing quality and accessible education will shut down the Taliban's pool for new recruits. As they become irrelevant, rural communities will decreasingly depend on them. This will force the government to adjust its budget, and pour more resources into building a stronger rural public education system.

6. On-line Advocacy to Sustainable Activism Requires Wrap-Around Support: Malala Yousufzhai started her advocacy on-line, took it to public forums, and now she lies in a hospital bed. While it is encouraging to see that grassroots efforts behind her work are growing in force, they can easily be quelled. Whether we follow Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, online to face-to-face activism requires real resources to sustain. Activists need to be trained on how to measure support, NGOs need sustainable funding, and newly minted supportive candidates need to win their elections. 

We can financially support the NGOs, but we can not own the process. The United States government and the Pakistani's activists' allies around the world can play a role in ensuring that the work continues.

7. The Algebra Project Strategy Works: American high school students active in their local Algebra Project chapter analyze state budgets and mobilize their peers behind policy initiatives that support more education programs and less detention facilities.The United States is better off because of the Algebra Project's work to end America’s prison-to-pipeline policies, and Pakistan will be better off for Malala’s activism. 

Students who have a personal investment and selfless dedication to their academics become long-term activists. I believe building a robust democracy centers around developing effective public education models. The Algebra Project is such an institution, and there are bound to be similar organizations throughout Pakistan in the coming years.

Similar to Robert Moses's vision, Malala and her peers have pinpointed weakness in their government’s ability to effectively serve. Pakistan’s constitution says girls should be educated alongside boys, and must provide the resources to make this happen. By analyzing their government's effectiveness, Pakistani youth are making sure that the country sticks to its promises. In order to sustain this kind of activism for generations, they need to build a public education system that provides access to all.

Pakistan's reformers need the Pakistani government to address education reform, and it starts by confronting political road blocks. Malala Yousufzai's grassroots organizing can play an effective role in long-term United States foreign policy. How it can make a difference is a continuing discussion, but I believe these are seven reasons why we should factor it into our agenda.

Change starts with everyday Pakistanis and the reforms they push must realistically match the country's needs and paradigms. It is clear that expanding education is what they want and what they need. They are already mobilizing to get it done, and they need to know that the world stands with them. I do.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Adil Ahmed

small-business advocate. union organizer.

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