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.

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.

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. 

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.