A right, not a privilege

Ziauddin Yousafzai is an educational and human rights activist, currently serving as the United Nation’s Special Advisor on Global Education. Most famously, he is father of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who, in 2013, established the Malala Fund, an organisation dedicated to helping the UN work towards gender equality, one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, through education. Grace Dodd meets him to discuss how education is a right, not a privilege.
Published —
03.08.17
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As Chairman of the Board, Ziauddin Yousafzai wants to establish programmes that invest in the future of young women. According to UNESCO, more than 90 million girls are missing out on a secondary school level education because of child marriage and the violence in over 70 countries that prevents them from going to school.


The Malala Fund works with Pakistani local authorities to ensure that they enrol more girls in secondary education, advocating and grant-making in some of the country’s remotest regions. They also offer an Alternative Learning Programme in Nigeria, a country with the highest number of girls out of school, for when returning to school is not a safe option; essentially creating a safe space where these young women can learn and build communities. In Kenya, the organisation focuses on providing girls from Nairobi’s slums with computer and life skills, as well as educating them about their reproductive health. It is pivotal work, as the UN estimates that if all women received a secondary level education, child deaths could be cut in half. Yousafzai talks passionately about the work that needs to be done to provide education in emergencies, and improving its quality for displaced Syrian refugee girls, in Lebanon and Jordan, is one of the Malala Fund’s highest priorities.

Although the Yousafzai’s lives have been irrevocably altered, father and daughter are still trying to make irrevocable change. On her 18th birthday Malala opened the Malala Yousafzai All-Girls School in Lebanon, with the UN officially naming 12 July Malala Day. In 2014, Malala met with the Nigerian girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram, and their parents. This year, those girls will have graduated under the Malala’s scholarship. He Named Me Malala, the documentary film by Academy Award-winning director David Guggenheim, has become a global movement, and is now screened in universities and educational workshops.

Yousafzai shares his fears about the children of Syrian refugees becoming a lost generation, his belief in ‘positive revenge’, and his hopes for creating a legacy of fighters.



The Malala Fund wants to ensure every girl has access to 12 years of safe, quality education, particularly in Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, and Syria. Can you tell us about some of the work you are doing to make that dream a reality?

The Malala Fund has three main objectives, and we put it as AAI: advocacy; amplifying the voices of other girls and education activists; and investment on ground. When Malala was first starting the fund, we wanted to ensure an education for every boy and girl, which is a very big dream. We decided that it should be more focused – so now it’s about girls’ education. Its dream is to achieve the goal of sending every girl to school.

We worked hard and we lobbied for twelve years of quality education because, initially, the world leaders were thinking of only nine years of education. In many educational goals, there was only primary education. Malala and the Malala Fund Team are amazing at negotiating with world leaders and reaching them. They convinced the world leaders by saying “look, you are not satisfied for your children to have only nine years of education – your children can study computer science – why should you set a different goal in for the poor children in the world?”. Finally, thankfully, we were successful.

We focus on Syrian refugees; we have projects in Jordan, and projects in Lebanon. On her 18th birthday, which the UN celebrates as Malala Day every year, Malala opened a school in Bekaa Valley. Fortunately, we now have two schools there- around 500 girls at secondary level are now getting an education. Malala celebrated her 17th birthday by meeting the parents of the Nigeria girls, who were kidnapped (by Boko Haram), and the Nigeria president, Goodluck Jonathan. She was so successful that he (the president) had a meeting with the girls from Chibok. We also gave scholarships to those girls. This year, they will have graduated under the Malala Fund scholarships. Then, we have projects in Kenya and Nairobi. Last year, Malala went to Rwanda and Kenya to meet the refugees there. We saw amazing girls struggling every day to get an education.’



According to UNESCO, more than 130 million girls are not in school and they make two thirds of the world’s illiterate population. What barriers to education do these young women face?

In refugee camps, every day is a struggle for the basics like food and water and light. Education there becomes a luxury, but it’s the basic right of the children. Organisations are not worried about education, it’s more about food – which is important too – but I think that education should be equally important for those children; as food is, as water is, as light is.

Formal education is a particular time in your life, so if you lose four or five years of that education then you are lost. Many times, when children are out of school, they are out of school for all time and that generation becomes a generation lost. Syrian refugee children are the future of Syria; the future of Syria is children. If they remain without education, if we don’t get them educated, we will lose them. If they become a generation lost – God forbid – how can we think of rebuilding Syria which has been through, and is still going through, absolute human atrocities, when every infrastructure is being destroyed?

Education is always important, whether it’s for the developed world, or the developing world, or whether it’s countries where there is conflict. It should be the priority, and that is the ideology of the Malala Fund, to make the world leaders and governments realise that they should make it a top priority for every child, girl and boy, to have a safe, quality education. Not only primary – that is the basic – but 12 years of education.

In many societies, they think, “okay, a girl should be educated or sent to school until grade five”, that she will be a good mother and an obedient wife, giving birth to children and serving her husband- but that is not what she deserves. She deserves more than that. That, in my mind, is not enough. What really gives a girl wings is higher education. When she has 12 years of education, she can make choices to get further education, to go into different professions, and then if she decides after getting a Masters degree or Bachelors degree that “okay, that was my education, now I want children, to have a life with my husband” that’s fine, but she should not be deprived of that opportunity and that right. Many men are qualified, they become doctors, they are doctors in medicine, but they don’t practice. They go to some other job and, in ten years, they come to politics. So there should be no discrimination when it comes to men and women, boys and girls, when it comes to rights to education. Both of them deserve full, quality education.



In your 2014 TedTalk, you talk about the fact that you never saw the names of your sisters written down and the impact of Talibanisation on women’s rights. What inspires or motivates your activism?

I’m inspired by the deprivation you see in society. What my father did not give to his daughters, to my sisters, it was, in a way, a challenge for me. When I saw that they remain unknown to this world, that they could not have their lives, I learned very early that they could be like me, to their full potential, with the full opportunity. When I went to school with 1100 children, my sister might have done better than me but she was not given that opportunity. So, I thought, what my father couldn’t give to his daughters I would give to my daughter.

I believe in – let’s call it – ‘positive revenge’. When you see discrimination, you should be fair to others. If you are discriminated against because of your colour, you should be fair and just and respectful to everyone. If you are discriminated against because of your faith or because of your religion, in retaliation you should be respectful to every faith. So I’m that kind of person. When anybody sees some inequality or injustice in life, it can have two kinds of effect on your personality. Either, if you are being bullied, you become a bully yourself, or you stand against bullying for everybody. I have gone through it, and I would never let anybody else to go through it. You don’t become the person who made you victim; rather, you become angry with the person who did that evil against you.

How can small organisations that are building their network, help you in your work and the work at the Malala Fund?

There is a need of collaboration, of working together, of connectivity. We all are working and struggling and striving for a better world. We – as Malala Fund co-founders, workers, and champions – we feel that education is one area which is very much important, that can bring change to human’s personalities, that individuals can change nations. They believe in it. Me personally, I’m a different person because of my education. If I believe in education, I believe in it because it changed me. If someone tells me that “okay, if you just swim in that sea or that river you will be changed”, I’ll tell them that I won’t practice it and I won’t believe in it. If I go and it makes me younger – twenty years younger – I will say “okay, I went to that ocean and took a bath and that made me twenty years younger”. Education is something which I had an experience of myself. It brought life: towards challenging patriarchy, challenging narrow-sighted religious clerks- the so-called religious scholars; my education empowered me to do that. So, when I see change in myself, I believe that it is like a magic wand. It’s magic wand that can change other people as well, and it is changing people, of course.
For girls especially, education is not simply mathematics, and computers, or language; it’s beyond that. It’s emancipation. They find themselves through education. They discover themselves through education. In patriarchal societies, and in societies where a woman can’t drive, in extremely religious and conservative societies, quality education is emancipation for them. It gives them confidence to be themselves, it gives them tongue to speak, a voice to speak with. This is what I’ve found in education. The prophet Mohammed said that “a good Muslim is a person who likes for others what he likes for himself” and many other good people have said so.


You’ve served as Special Advisor on Global Education for the United Nations, and your daughter has won the Nobel Peace Prize. What would you like your legacy to be?


I think that all legacies, and the Malala Fund legacy, should be the power of your voice in hard times. Our legacy should be that when your basic human rights are violated, and you see it, that you should not work to be the victim, you should come up to be the fighter. There are hundreds of people – some say 20,000 people – have been killed in Pakistan. All of them were victims, but there were few fighters. I think that when it comes to make a choice, whether to die as a victim – just as a victim – or as a fighter, we should die as a fighter. At least you die with a satisfaction in your conscience that “I did my part”.