Wow. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in many impactful events during my years at the World Bank, but one of the most memorable will always be the conversation between 16 year-old girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim during our Annual Meetings last Friday, in honor of the International Day of the Girl Child.
Malala had the standing room only audience of World Bank Group staff, finance and development ministers and Annual Meetings delegates from around the world in laughter, tears, and in awe as she spoke with the poise, conviction and wisdom of someone many years older about preparing to face down the Talib, who would shoot her simply because she dared speak out for the right of all children to go to school.
“I said, ‘Are you stopping your campaign? No, definitely not,’” Malala said. “I believe in the power of voice of women…through raising our voices, our books and our pens, we can achieve our goals.”
President Kim asked Malala what message she had for the ministers in the audience. She answered, “The best way to fight terrorism is not through guns….We need to spend the same money on books, on pens, on teachers, and on schools. It is the duty of the government…to work for the education of every child and take education seriously.”
Malala made a compelling case for why she thinks education is the best development investment. “Much of the money is spent on health, on AIDS, and on other different problems we are facing in developing countries. But I think that all these organizations [here] must make education their top priority,” she said. “If you educate a child, then you also help him protect himself from AIDS, from diseases, you tell him if you boil water, it gets clean. Education is the best solution to fight many other issues; through education you can fight child labor, child trafficking, you can also fight poverty,” she said.
Malala’s own story of when she was shot is itself a powerful reminder of how poverty is a cross-sectoral issue. She recounted her worries that her family was not rich and would not have enough money to afford the cost of her hospital stay, and that her father might have to sacrifice their house or school or get a loan to pay for it. Malala’s worry is all too common in developing countries, where 100 million people annually fall into poverty due to health care expenses.
As the mother of two young girls, one of the most inspiring moments for me was to hear Malala’s answer to the question sent in from a 13-year old girl in Ghana: “When you lay in your hospital bed, did you ever wish you were a boy?” “No,” she said, “I never wished to be a boy, and I would never wish. I am proud to be a daughter and a girl.”
Malala also reminded us parents in the audience – many of whom brought their girls to hear her – of the important role we play in defining the opportunities and boundaries for how our children imagine the future. Her advice to fathers of young girls: “Do not clip their wings, let them fly, and give them the equal rights as your sons, accept them as human beings.”
This past April, we hosted the Washington, DC, premiere of the incredible film Girl Rising which chronicles nine girls in nine countries who, like Malala, are fighting for their right to go to school and determine their own destinies. One of the Girl Rising ambassadors in the audience last week, Sandra from the Democratic Republic of Congo, asked Malala how can we make sure girls and women stay on our agenda every day, not just on this one day of International Day of the Girl. Malala said, “Every day is our day. We are going to speak for ourselves and our rights. There is no day for men, there is no boy day…and we [girls] are going to struggle, so that tomorrow we should not need a day for ourselves.”
Malala also described how the Malala Fund has embarked on its first project in her homeland of Swat Valley, Pakistan, educating 40 girls who had suffered from child labor and are now getting an education. With President Kim’s announcement of a $200,000 donation from the World Bank to the Malala Fund, I’m proud that the Bank will be helping support her efforts to ensure more children can go to school and acquire the knowledge and skills they need to escape poverty and realize their dreams.
Before closing, President Kim also called on former World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn in the audience, who, together with his wife Elaine, was a vocal advocate for education and gender equality and scaled up the Bank’s work in these areas. In response to Malala’s plans to become a politician, Wolfensohn said, “I wish your objective was to come and run the World Bank.”
The art teacher at my daughters’ elementary school recently painted a beautiful portrait of Malala and hung it in the cafeteria next to a painting of Martin Luther King. Whether one day she becomes the World Bank president, President of Pakistan, UN Secretary-General or serves in some other leadership post, there is no doubt Malala is only just beginning her quest to change the world – and she will serve as an inspiration for my daughters and children everywhere.