With my subfuse academic dress at the ready, pre-reading completed and new walking boots waiting in my wardrobe, I started my first week at Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall in October of last year. University life is a big change for any student and I was no exception. None of the food in the dining hall could compare with my mum’s chicken and rice, and in the beginning I missed my parents, and sometimes even my little brothers, too. They often complain that I don’t miss them as much as they miss me — which is probably true. But that is because life at Oxford is busy.
I had long lists of books to read and many essays to write to keep up with my Philosophy, Politics and Economics course. Along with studies, you also want to socialise – to hear speakers, go to balls, cheer at sporting events. The hardest part for me is managing my time, as, on top of my studies and balancing work with Malala Fund, I want to take advantage of everything university has to offer. I joined the cricket club, Oxford Union and the Oxford Pakistan Society. I attended lectures and film screenings and became a tour guide to encourage younger students, especially those from under-represented groups, to apply to Lady Margaret Hall. I made wonderful new friends, and I had too many overscheduled days.
Last year, I would find myself running between classes, study groups, cricket matches and meetings with extracurricular groups. I would go to a friend’s room or they would come to mine to chat after dinner; when I would look at the clock again, it would be three in the morning! A few – well, many – times, I started an essay at 11pm the night before it was due.
I overwhelmed myself with the possibilities of university life. And I’m grateful for that. I know how lucky I am to have access to an incredible education, lectures, art, sport and new perspectives. At 11 years old, I woke up one morning and could not go to school because the Taliban had banned girls’ education in Swat, the region of Pakistan where I was born. I am so pleased that I spoke out and for my years of campaigning that have followed. Now 21, I am able to study at a prestigious university — but I want to live in a world where every girl is able to weigh her future career options in the way I hope to when I graduate.
Today, there are more than 130 million girls who are out of school around the world. Many are forced to marry as young as 11 or 12 years old, so instead of learning, they are cooking, cleaning and raising children of their own. In many places, poverty forces girls to go to work so they can support their families. Too often in wars and conflicts, girls must flee their homes and their schools. They have no choice. Most of them never go back to the classroom. Some girls brave long walks, risking street harassment and sexual violence, just to get to their school. Some girls do not have access to working restrooms, and must choose between their dignity or education. Some girls have no schools at all. I have visited refugee camps, war zones, favelas and slums. The hardest thing is to see a girl nearly my age, with all the dreams and aspirations that I have, stuck in a situation she didn’t create and unable to choose her own future.
Everywhere you go today, you see feminist T-shirts and hashtags – “The future is female”, “Girl power”, “Who runs the world?” – but if we really believe this, we need to support girls on the front lines of this fight. This summer I travelled to Brazil to meet with indigenous girls who face some of the worst marginalisation and violence in their country because their families are poor, their skin is “too dark” and they’re female. One of the girls I met, Andrea Bak, is 17 years old. She told me how excited she was to study chemistry in school this year. She wants to be a dentist, lift her family out of poverty and provide affordable healthcare to her community.
A few years ago, I met Zaynab Abdi, 21, from Yemen. She told me how she fled wars in three countries before she was 17 years old. Today Zaynab is a refugee, living in America and studying international relations at a women’s college. She works three jobs to pay for her tuition, gets top marks, serves on the student council and captains a soccer team. She wants to become a human-rights lawyer and return home to help her country.
Like me, Andrea and Zaynab are excited to go back to school. They understand that education can change their life trajectory and make it easier for the next generation of girls from their communities to do the same. It should be obvious that 130 million out-of-school girls are not just a problem for these young women individually but for our whole world. When girls have access to 12 years of education, primary and secondary, they reduce the risk of violent conflict, improve public health, slow the effects of climate change and grow economies.
In July, the World Bank released research showing that we could add between $15 and $30 trillion to the global economy if every girl went to school. On average, girls who graduate from secondary school make twice as much money as girls who are left out. As technological advances change the nature of work and our global economy, young women without an education will fall even further behind. Digitalisation, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming the way we live, learn and earn. Without an adequate start in life, millions of girls won’t have the skills they need to succeed in today’s labour market. They face a lifetime of low-paid low-status work, poverty and insecurity. Their untapped potential is a loss for all of us.
Whether you’re a feminist or an economist – or just a person who wants to live in a better world – you should want to see all girls in school. Listen to the stories of girls such as Andrea and Zaynab and share them with your friends and family. Speak out against injustice when you see it. Vote for leaders who believe in equality and commit to investing more in education.
I am going back to university this month. As I begin my second year, my plan is to find a better balance between college work and social life. I want to prioritise the activities that interest me the most and get a better idea of what I want my life to look like post-graduation. I don’t know yet what career path I will choose – but I know I’ll keep advocating for girls and women. If one girl with an education can change the world, just imagine what 130 million can do.