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“What I have learned is that education not only empowers girls but also helps us to build communities that are more peaceful, that are healthier and wealthier,” Malala Yousafzai,

The Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, was in Ethiopia last week. Addis Standard’s Nasredin Mohammed and Mahlet Fasil had the opportunity for this exclusive interview shortly before she left. Excerpts:

Addis Abeba, July 19/2019


Addis Standard – Tell us about the purpose of your visit? What exactly are you planning to accomplish?

Malala Yousafzai – I give my first speech at the UN when I turned 16. It was on my birthday and the UN called it “Malala Day.”.Since then I have been celebrating my birthday with girls around the world who need a voice; I have been in Nigeria, in Kenya, in the Syrian refuge [camp]…trying to raise awareness about girls’ education. And this year I decided that I would come to Ethiopia because, here there are more than five million girls who do not have access to education and more than 40 percent of the girls get married before the age of 18. And I believe that girls all around the world deserve equal opportunity in their life and they all deserve education. So I’m here to meet [some of these] girls, learn their stories from them and find out what’s the best way for me to help them in their education and how we can work here in Ethiopia.

Who are you partnering with in order to make this a reality?

I’ve been here for like four or five days now and I met education activists, I met a women’s rights activist and these are incredible people who are fighting for girls’ rights and women’s rights and I learned a lot from them. You know they were talking about the barriers that are there for girls in having access to their education from menstrual hygiene to lack of awareness regarding sexual reproduction rights and early child marriages and teenage pregnancies, and lots of issues that girls are confronting. But we also talked about changes in the policies recently; the government is passionate about bringing in policies that can empower women and girls and I had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister [Abiy Ahmed] and president [Sahle-Werk Zewde] and I heard a very positive response regarding investing in girls’ education. And I advocate for the complete education of girls and we were on the same page; we agreed that there’s a lot that needs to be done and we should be working together.

“People who do not want women to be empowered deprived women
from their education”

What is your understanding of access to education for girls in Ethiopia?

I myself was a student and, I am still a student (I am in a University) but when I was 11 years old the extremist called the Taliban; they abandoned education in Swat Valley and they said no girl was allowed to go to school; they banned women from going to markets. They told women to stay inside houses and they bombed no more than 400 schools. And that was the point when I realized that education was something more than just reading and writing. It was empowerment for women, and people who do not want women to be empowered deprived women from their education. So if you want to empower women and girls you have to give them education, quality education, not just primary but also secondary education so they can then go ahead and explore careers and get their tertiary education and other forms of education and skills if they want to develop.

What I have learned is that education not only empowers girls but also helps us to build communities that are more peaceful, that are healthier and wealthier. We did studies together with the World Bank [and it] shows that if we educate all girls – give them 12 years of quality education- it will add up to 30 trillion dollars to the global economy. So this is an investment that gives us returns in trillions. And I think this is the same for men; all men working in societies and we all understand that men too go out and create jobs and they are actively participating in the economy. That’s how they got here as well. Think about the other half of the population, which is women and girls. And if we invite them and if we also give them the education and equal opportunities they will boost their economies further; you create more jobs and more opportunities. Not only that but you also improve health when you improve education. When a mother is educated the family is more healthier, the family is safer as well.

A recent study by Borgen project stated that primary school attendance rate for girls in Ethiopia has risen from 30.2 percent in 2000/01 to 64.5 percent in 2010/11. All things considered, it’s an impressive feat, but what can be done to improve this? What’s expected of politicians, religious leaders, civil society organizations, think tanks, and other academic institutions? What do you think should these institutions do?

I think the first thing is a policy, where policy should ensure 12 years of education to all girls. It should ensure that girls should have the right to 12 years of education and Ethiopia is heading in that direction. The second thing is implementing those policies because these policies need to go into action and I think that’s the next step and the civil society and everybody needs to push for that. There are also other things that we need to consider at the same time which could act as a barrier for girls education. Things like the right for girls to be safe when they’re going to school; are the girls feeling safe within school? Is there anything about menstrual hygiene? Are they getting those facilities or not? Are they getting awareness about their sexual drives and all other things? Are we also helping them in preventing child marriages and in raising awareness about teenage pregnancies? All these things matter; that is also the thing that the law needs to ensure along with the availability; there’s financing towards education so we know how much does the budget actually provide for education.

” I think financing education is important and for that I always push the international community and other regional organizations and governmental bodies that are out there…”

And I think that there’s definitely the need to increase financing towards girls education especially in the secondary education for girls. That’s the crucial bit because oftentimes there’s investment in the primary education girls and boys enroll. [But] there’s not enough investment in the secondary education; children drop out of schools. And then there’s investment in tertiary education as well. Those are important as well. But how do we ensure that children can go into the tertiary education if they’re not getting their secondary education?

So I think financing education is important and for that I always push the international community and other regional organizations and governmental bodies that are out there to increase investment towards education whether it is at the G7 or the G20, and the Global Partnership for Education.

And at Malala Fund we do the advocacy, but we also invest in local education advocates who are fighting for girls’ rights. We are talking to teachers, local religious leaders, and girls’ parents to convince them to send their daughters to school. In some places we are training female teachers because parents often do not send their daughters to schools. We are also using technology to make education easier for girls especially those who are refugees or displaced girls. So we are bringing our projects in countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Brazil, the Syrian refuge camps. And hopefully here to, you know, I’m here to learn from girls and find out what’s the best way we can work and explore how we can start these projects in Ethiopia.

Speaking of using technology, a few months ago, Assembly Newsletter, which is your initiative, featured Behtelihem Dessie, the 19 year old Ethiopian software developer. Besides featuring stories like hers, how else is Assembly helping girls with the knack for digital entrepreneurship?

Through Malala Fund we promote quality education and I think for the 21st century quality education includes STEM education; it includes coding and computer science as well because this is one of those things that you would need for the 21st century jobs. In the next 20 to 50 years and the next generation we would be facing more challenges in terms of that if we do not first give them education. I visited Betty’s project and I think she is incredible and we shared her stories with Malala Funds platform which is Assembly, and we heard from girls all around the world such as India, Afghanistan, Mexico… I don’t know, like every part of the world goes out sharing their stories and saying how they realize that education is important and then they use their voice to bring change. And Betty is one of them. And this is a platform open to all girls so if there’s any girl in Ethiopia right now who wants to share her story, she can go on Malala Fund website and can share her stories with us and we will publish it because we believe in girls voice. Girls voice is important and our leaders and our society need to listen to these voices.

Besides spreading these voices, do you think, given the rising tech startups in Ethiopia that your foundation can help girls improve their lives? If yes, how are you planning to make sure that the opportunities are available to girls outside of metropolitan areas?

So far we have not started our projects in Ethiopia, and we’re exploring how we can start. And for me it was a learning experience and from this trip we will go and see what’s the best way to get involved. I don’t want to be one of those people who are sitting in the west and say I know everything; we don’t.

“We will try to reach out to the girls who are the most marginalized…because
they need a voice…”

So I think we will work with local activists for that. And for me the most important part is to reach out to the girls like we do with those who are the most marginalized, such as in the north of Pakistan. That’s a place which is one of the most marginalized areas. In Nigeria, we also work in the north because there are, again, some of the most marginalized areas and girls are facing many barriers there. So hopefully it’s the same if we start doing the work here; we will try to reach out to the girls who are the most marginalized and because they need a voice and they need opportunities and they need those facilities to help them to get their education and learning and leading their life.

One of the areas Ethiopia’s first lady Zinash Tayachew is focusing on is expansion of primary education; her office is building around 20 schools in remote areas where there are lack of schools. Do you see any potential for collaboration between your foundation and the office of the first lady to this end?

Hopefully we can explore. I only had the opportunity to meet with the president and the prime minister. Next time when we come back, we are here to explore and we will see. There’s still a lot to learn before starting our work. And I also realize, as you mentioned, there are girls who I visited who have the opportunity to have access to computers, and they’re using coding but there are still many girls who do not have access to even computers or any other technology. They’re still girls who are coming from rural areas to urban areas, and they are here in hopes of getting education and opportunities; but sometimes they never get to see that. Those girls need help.

Our work should focus on how we can get those girls back into school. I got to see some of those girls as well who are now in an education center. It was a great learning experience to see these girls from different backgrounds in different places and to see where every girl stands and to learn that when you give girls the opportunities to education their live and visions change completely and they suddenly realize that they’re capable of anything.

Finally, if you have the opportunity to address a group of girls who are fighting all odds just to get access to education, what would be your message to them? 

To be honest given the things that I learned from girls here I don’t think they need my advice. They are so passionate about their education, about their rights, and they know what to say but all I can say is that believe in yourself, believe in your voice and your role is so important in society.

Oftentimes people do not even give attention to the issues that they are facing because nobody is speaking about them. So even when you speak about it, even when you mention it, even when you raise it on a platform than yourself it is a big contribution, because you are telling society that this thing is happening, early child marriages are happening, teen pregnancies are happening, there is lack of schools for girls and you need to do something about it. So I think even just ringing this bell, giving this wake up call to the society is in itself a huge contribution. AS

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