Malala Day: Equal access to education must not be sold for peace

Malala dayArticle 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration’. Article 26 asserts the right of all to an education. The preamble asserts that peace is best served by the observance of these rights. Are these ideas being implemented by the international community with regards to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or is a desire for peace at any cost risking some of the United Nations most prized concepts?

Friday 12th July is Malala day, in response to a remarkable person called Malala Yousafzai. The Pakistani campaigner for the right to education is not a politician or academic far from the problems faced by those attempting to assert their right to an education. She is a 15 year old girl in the heart of the fight and suffered the terrible consequences when the Taliban shot her and friends while travelling to school. Ban Ki-Moon in response to her forthcoming visit to the United Nations reiterated the fundamental principle, equal and safe access to education while stating that ‘the international community must work together to prevent violations of the right to education’.

The United Nations, through its Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown is meeting with the Leaders of Pakistan to implore them to implement ‘radical actions’ on education. A global education delegation will be meeting with President Zardari for high level talks. This is a good start, but the reality is that the Taliban are in a commanding position, especially in the Swat Valley where the Malala shooting took place. The Taliban must be part of any realistic settlement that will ensure the right to education that the United Nations wishes to see.

The fatal shooting of a teacher fighting for girl’s education in Pakistan is a stark reminder that this is not just a threat to the right to education, but also gender equality. It is the education of girls that is clearly the target. NGO workers who are involved in the area of education have been attacked and Farida Afridi, a women’s rights activist was murdered apparently for her work on girls’ education. All these events are extremely worrying and the international community must continue to support all those who risk their own safety to protect and supply the fundamental right of education. Indeed Ban Ki-Moon notes that ‘through hate-filled actions, extremists have shown what frightens them the most: a girl with a book’.

The link between education and peace has been confirmed by Ban Ki-Moon and it is this link that must not be forgotten when the international community comes to make peace with the Taliban. The right to education must be sacrosanct, not a principle up for negotiation. America’s desire for peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan must not impact on the work being done in Pakistan to protect the right to education. In fact the talks should be seen as an opportunity to show the international communities resolve on this issue. The days following America’s initiative for peace were marred by acts of barbarism form the Taliban, including the bombing of a college bus carrying 40 girls (Fourteen died). Gordon Brown has made it clear that a peace deal with the Taliban will not end the violence if it does not include a ‘credible pledge to respect elementary human rights’. It is a terrible statistic that 1,000 Pakistan and Afghanistan schools have been bombed, burnt down or simply closed through intimidation in the last three years. This reality must be kept clear in the minds of those who are seeking peace (a necessary move) with the Taliban.

President Karzai has acknowledged that the Taliban’s attacks on civilians, especially schools and children, are a deep concern but must not prevent peace talks. Negotiation is the only way that peace can be brought to this region, and as a guiding principle of the United Nations it should always be the first approach. However, as Gordon Brown in his capacity as Special Envoy for Global Education confirmed, those brokering a peace deal in Afghanistan must always remember that ‘girls’ rights cannot be written off as a bargaining chip to be traded in for a pretence of peace’. The courage that Malala Yousafzai has and is showing and the sacrifices that teachers, schoolchildren and campaigners have made in this embattled region must not be forgotten. They must inspire us all to make the hope that the United Nations was founded upon a reality.


 Michael Stagg