On July 12th 2013, over 500 youth from 80 countries convened at the United Nations. They, and the world, paused to witness a incredibly brave young woman raise her voice to support the education of millions of children. Her name is Malala Yousafzai, and she is the Pakistani girl who was shot on a school bus last year by the Taliban for standing up for her and other girls’ right to receive an education.
A Special UN Youth Assembly, held on what is now known as Malala Day (#MalalaDay), had an undeniable electricity in the room. I sat alongside other young people, supporting Malala in delivering a resolution, The Education We Want, to the UN Secretary-General, and subsequently, the UN Security Council, to demand compulsory education for the 57 million children out of school.
Malala is an inspirational young woman who has, through terrible circumstances, raised the issues of child and female education globally in a way that would have been unlikely without her. But while Malala’s story is unique, what she represents is common and widespread. The shooting of Malala and the attack on children – particularly girls – simply for going to school was an horrific act of terror and violence. Unfortunately these acts occur often throughout the world. Many young girls and boys put themselves in the line of fire each day by going to school against cultural and religious expectations.
“Malala day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. There are hundreds of Human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for human rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goals of education, peace and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them.”
– Malala Yousafzai
She seemed unfazed by the attention, but also aware of her global position. She spoke as a young Pakistani, Muslim girl, in a way which will connect to girls, Muslims, young people, Westerners, secularists, the NGO sector, and world leaders.
Inspirational though the speech was, it is no replacement for action by the UN, governments, civil society, policy makers, private enterprises, religious leaders, elders and communities. Speeches do not equal action and it is only through political will, decent policy and implementation that we will achieve education for all. The question is then, what next?
The UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on primary education is considered 90% complete  and is celebrated as an MDG success . But that still leaves 57 million girls and boys not in education. Similarly, getting people to attend school does not mean that the education provided is decent nor gives them the skills and knowledge needed for employment and a future livelihood. We need to adjust our criteria for successful education to include quality and attainment, not just attendance.
The Post-2015 High Level panel has recognized the need to include lower-secondary education as a target , but countries need to have better incentives for improving education. It must also be recognized that it is not just about building new schools, but providing reasons for children and family to embrace learning and development. It is as much about the hearts and minds of communities and community leaders as it is financing new buildings and new books – a much more challenging area for action.
The ‘youth takeover’ of the United Nations is historic in that young people have sat in the UN chamber, but we must recognise that young people already participate in similar – if not as grand – processes through formal constituencies and in protest lobbies. Similarly, it does not replace the need for youth to be better coordinated, consulted, and mainstreamed throughout the entire UN system and for youth participation to be built into local, provincial and national policy and programme design, delivery and evaluation.
It is easy for people to be swept away with Malala’s story and her speech, on her 16th birthday, surrounded by hundreds of young people and some of the most prominent world leaders. But pride and inspiration need to be matched by frustration and action. We have so far failed, despite our promises, to get 57 million children into education and provide a real, decent, sustained education for many more. The UN ‘youth takeover’ doesn’t equal youth empowerment nor change for out-of-school children.
Malala Day was a great event that showcased young people around the world and, led by a true youth champion, demanded simply one thing – an education for all. Now, actions and policy needs to follow, otherwise it will have been a fun day, but little else. Ultimately, Malala and all those who put their lives at risk for education, aren’t in this for a nice day at the UN. For them, this is a campaign to change lives not for one day, but for every day. There is a global evidence-base for youth and student policy, and the United Nations and world leaders need to listen to the world’s youth and their resolution, The Education We Want, and make basic education a reality for every child, every day.