Opinion: Raise your hand on Malala Day

Just under a year ago, I wrote a piece about the shooting of a girl who dared to demand her right an education. Today, that girl will address the UN and meet Ban Ki Moon to discuss access to education worldwide. Today is Malala Yousafzai’s 16th birthday.

Education is a right that we often take for granted in the UK. But millions of children worldwide miss out on an education. Where parents cannot afford to send their children to school, cannot afford for their children not to work, or even when places are provided but they cannot provide the uniform or materials, those children will never have the opportunity to change their lives. They will live and die in poverty.

Girls are more likely to miss out on education than boys. When finances are tight, many families will choose to educate sons but not daughters; sons will go on to work, but if daughters are expected to raise a family and stay at home then educating them is seen as pointless. Often, raising children is something done at school age– in sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 5 girls is married before the age of 18. Once they are married, they will not return to school as this video shows.

The discrimination and poverty that prevents children gaining an education is heartbreaking, but pales into insignificance compared to the violence that many face when trying to claim their right to an education. Last week, the militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for killing 42 students and teachers at a boarding school in Nigeria. This is not the first attack on schools – the Taliban have previously been linked to poison attacks on schools in Pakistan – and there are no signs that it will be the last. Last October, the Taliban also tried to assassinate a prominent blogger who spoke out about the importance of education – Malala Yousafzai.

It seems ironic that by trying to assassinate her, the Taliban turned a national figure in Pakistan into a global leader in the fight for universal education. At the age of only 16, Malala has not just become a vocal and effective global campaigner but an icon; a symbol of the importance of education, a tool so effective and so important that the Taliban would kill to stop her using it.

Education is a tool to change lives.  We must all continue to work for a world where the circumstances of our birth don’t matter, but until that day we must be able to overcome them, to change our futures.  For girls in Pakistan, that means the possibility of avoiding child marriage, potentially a career– a future that they choose for themselves. Education is the only way for women to overcome the practical barriers and discrimination that stop them from reaching their potential.

Plan work throughout Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa working to keep girls in education, providing informal education to 11,000 girls in Pakistan alone. They’re also working with Malala to help her highlight the importance of global education at the UN. So as your birthday present to Malala, please back Plan’s campaign to ask the UN to make girl’s education a priority, and raise your hand. Tweet a picture of youraising yourhand with the hashtag #bciamagirl, sign their petition, and share on Facebook and Twitter. Together, we can help give girls across the world back their right to an education, and their right to choose their future.

* Sophie Bridger is a former by-election candidate and President of Liberal Youth Scotland. She was Scotland’s diversity champion and lives in Glasgow.

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