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Malala Yousafzai: Why The Pandemic Is Both a Challenge and an Opportunity for Girls’ Education

Screenshot of Charlotte Kirby and Malala Yousafzai speaking at Education Summit

“There is something completely unfair about the fact that I am denied the right to education because I am a girl.”

Malala Yousafzai
Nobel Peace Prize Winner was honored to have activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speak with us as part of this year’s Education Summit. Malala’s fight for education and equality is well known and it continues every day through the organization she founded. Malala Fund, advocates for the resources and policy changes needed to give all girls a secondary education, amplifies the voices of girls fighting for change, and invests in local educators and activists around the world. One of their programs, the Education Champion Network,  supports education activists and partners across nine countries who are driving solutions to girls’ education challenges in their communities.

Charlotte Kirby, VP of Global Strategic Relations at, spoke with Malala about how the pandemic has made education more difficult for students everywhere but has been especially hard on girls. However, Malala says she remains hopeful that the strides being made to use technology to support remote education may benefit girls and prevent them from being left behind in the digital age. Here are some highlights of their conversation.

Show Them the Money

Malala knows that money talks in a capitalist world, so she starts off with a big number: Educating all girls through secondary school could add up to $30 trillion to the world’s economy.

“There are so many research papers that have been done that show that when girls are educated, it boosts economies…Our leaders, our policy-makers, decision-makers must realize—soon—that education is a sustainable investment,” Malala says.

She adds that when girls receive primary education, their lifetime income is 19% higher; when they receive secondary education, that income doubles.

The Pandemic Put Girls Further Behind

Throughout the pandemic, schools have closed around the world in order to slow the spread of infection. But these closures disproportionately affected girls, many of whom struggle far more than boys with familial pressures and burdens when they are not in school.

“When girls are stuck at home, when they are not in formal schools anymore, it is very difficult for them to continue learning. Most of these girls are forced into early child marriages…Some of them have to help their families in the household chores; some of them are asked to help the families financially because their parents have had difficulty in their jobs,” says Malala. She says now is a critical time to redouble the work being done to bring free, quality education to all girls around the world, so that further ground is not lost.

Malala is disappointed by global leaders who minimize the problem of girls’ education: “When leaders come together, they distract us, they tell us about the pandemic, and then they tell us not to talk about gender equality and quality education. My view is that we need to focus more on these issues at this critical time, because there is a huge risk that these issues can worsen.”

Digital Tools Can Offer Education Equality to Girls Everywhere

Malala says the pandemic offers an amazing opportunity for inclusivity, given that many schools have pivoted to online learning and tools to support it are being developed and improved quickly.

“This pandemic time has taught us that yes, there is a possibility that we can use technology for the future of education. How can we use the tools we have right now to ensure that education is accessible to children all around the world, especially girls, especially those who are living in remote areas, especially those who are coming from marginalized backgrounds,” she says.

Education activists working with Malala Fund have harnessed the power of technology by digitizing school curriculums to make learning accessible by mobile phone or computer, to bring education to children in remote and marginalized areas or those who need to catch up. For example, in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have so far not kept their promise to reopen secondary schools for girls, activists are discreetly operating digital schools to ensure continued access to education.

But in many families, if there is just one digital tool in the house, boys are more likely to have access to it, while girls help with household chores. Many girls are not even taught to use digital devices.

“​​If girls and women are left behind in this, they will not be prepared for the future,” Malala explained. She adds that cultural and social norms around girls’ education also need to change, and while activists are undertaking this work, they need more support from leaders and policy change to back it up.

Girls’ Stories Offer Hope — If We Listen

Malala Fund’s digital newsletter, Assembly, offers a forum for girls and young women around the world to share their stories and experiences with education, mental health, discrimination, the effects of climate change, and more. Malala says reading and amplifying these stories is essential to creating a greater push for education equality.

“Whenever I read their articles and their stories, it inspires me to continue the work for girls’ education. I’m often asked: Why do you fight for girls’ education? And what gives you hope? And my answer is always the same; that it’s when I meet girls and it’s when I hear girls’ stories that I gain this hope for a better future for this world.”

Assembly is a place where girls can speak up in their own words without being shouted down, spoken to condescendingly, or told they don’t know what’s best for them. Malala says we need to do more listening to girls, instead of just making decisions on their behalf.

“People talk about the problems girls are facing, but they hardly bring girls to the tables where decisions are made about them. So it’s time that we bring them to those conversations, where they can tell us what their life is like, where they face these barriers, and how they see solving those issues.”

Malala reminds us all that we must listen and actually hear the concerns of young people because they are the ones who will live in the future and must deal with the issues being created today. But she says that what she hears and sees from young activists inspires her and gives her hope for the future.

“I hope that leaders listen, but I am also not as much worried because I know that these young activists will be the leaders of tomorrow and they will make that change happen.”

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Navneet Johal headshot
Navneet Johal Director, Student Experience, Education Cloud Industry Solutions

Navneet Johal is the director of student experience for Education Cloud industry solutions at Before joining Salesforce, Navneet was a solution director for higher education and research at SAP, and a senior analyst at Ovum, where she led research on the use of technology in higher education. Navneet's passion for education and technology began when she was teaching in the further education sector in the U.K. for several years before moving to the U.S.

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