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This back-to-school season, consider the girls who may never go back to a classroom. According to a report from the Malala Fund which was issued last spring and updated in July, 20 million secondary school-aged girls could find themselves permanently out of an education even after the pandemic has passed. Why? The reasons are manifold, starting with early marriages and teen pregnancies. And the impact is far-reaching, not only in the regions where girls are most at risk but across the globe.
According to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist known for cofounding her eponymous nonprofit, a more educated population translates to a society that is better equipped to handle global crises. It means that people are more knowledgeable on issues of viruses and vaccines, and how to slow the spread of a pandemic. It also means more economic stability, which helps populations weather a storm—whatever form the next one may take.
Fortune recently interviewed Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history, to find out more about the ways her fund and its partners are working to mitigate some of the current threats to girls’ education, why this issue should matter to businesses, and to hear about her own personal challenges throughout the pandemic. The interview below has beed edited for length and clarity.
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Fortune: We hear a lot about the disruption the virus is causing in education here in the United States, with much of learning being remote. Can you give us a bigger picture for what’s going on globally as a result of the virus, and in particular the risks to girls who are not going back to school?
Yousafzai: To be honest, Covid has shaken the global system of the economy and health and the world we live in. Before, all I could see in the future was progress, that things would improve with time. But as soon as this pandemic started and the Malala Fund did research on how this could affect girls education, we saw that it could impact 20 million girls who would be unable to return to the classroom forever. It made me more aware of the system we were living in, and that there could be unexpected events. We need to ensure that girls’ education is not ignored, and that we do not lose focus of this cause.
Can you explain why the estimates from this report showed such a disproportionate impact on girls?
The Malala Fund report [relied on insight from] the Ebola crisis. Even though it affected a smaller region, it gave us some information because it showed how many girls were in school before that and how many returned, and for those that did not return, why that was the case. The reasons are when girls stay home they often become victim to childhood marriages. School is a safe place for them, not just a place of learning. The second issue is that they become one of the family’s key breadwinners. There are several other reasons, including that oftentimes when there is an option of sending one child to school, families will send the boy.
Technological infrastructure was already an issue in many regions where your fund operates. How much of a role does it play in helping or hindering education now?
Technology is a key tool right now in ensuring that students do not miss out on their education. But it depends on the region we’re talking about. It’s difficult to make a generalized comment. We make sure we give the support they need in different regions. For example, activists in Nigeria are focused on giving lessons through a radio. Haroon [Yasin, a Pakistani education entrepreneur] is focused on using mobile phones and national television in Pakistan. It’s thinking outside the box and using the current technology that we already have.
What message do you want to send the business community, and why should they care about this risk to girls’ education?
[I notice the] lack of support during this time. It seems counterintuitive because education is the best way to protect ourselves from future crises. When girls go to school, economies grow and public health improves. In this time of pandemic, if you imagine a more educated society, it would allow us to more easily tackle more this crisis. It is education that gives us a society in which we can ensure that we are healthy and safe. There is an awareness of hygiene, and how viruses and vaccines work.
What has been hardest for you, on a personal level, throughout the pandemic?
I was in my final year of college when this all started. We were sent back home for Easter holiday and then never returned. I had to take my exams and do my graduation at home. The world I imagined post-graduation was that I would be traveling and meeting our champions [a network of activists and advocates of girls’ education, supported by the Malala Fund]. That is not what I see right now. Instead, there is a lot of uncertainty and confusion about what is next.
But at same time, I’m thinking that maybe this is an opportunity for us to reset the world we are living in, and not just return to normal. I hope that this is a time that we really think about society and the system that we are living in. The world is not perfect, there are issues from racism to sexism and global inequality. There is a lot that needs to be done. We continue our work with optimism.
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