Malala Yousafzay, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the State of Education Today

On October 10, 2014, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay for “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”[1] Whereas recent Nobel Peace Prizes have focused on topics such as the elimination of chemical weapons (2013), the advancement of peace and democracy in Europe (2012), women’s participation in peace-building work (2011), and human rights in China (2010), this year’s focus on ending the exploitation of children and the right of all children to education shows a shift, on the part of the Nobel Committee, towards the future. The very idea of education is that it prepares the leaders of tomorrow’s world. In this sense, the quality and accessibility of education today will have a profound impact on the future of international relations. This belief can be seen through the Nobel Committee’s announcement of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, which deems the rights of young people, specifically the right to education, as “a prerequisite to peaceful global development.”[2]

Malala Yousafzay’s Exposition in the Nobel Peace Center.
Malala Yousafzay’s Exposition in the Nobel Peace Center.

While the focus on education is well-deserved, as access to education is one of the lesser-publicized issues in international relations when compared to conflict resolution or terrorism, the emphasis on gender parity in education snubs many other factors influencing the global state of education. Income, for example, is the far and away the largest source of disparity in secondary school completion rates in every part of the globe.[3] Because levels of household income are by far the greatest source of inequality in education, it seems wrong that much of the media coverage on education, particularly in the international sphere, focuses on increasing female access to education.

While still a cause for concern and with room for improvement, gender parity in education has drastically improved in recent history. Between 2000 and 2010, tremendous improvements were made, with the gender parity index (GPI) for secondary school age students increasing from 0.92 to 0.96 (meaning that, in secondary schools worldwide, for every 100 male students there are 96 female students).[4] These increases in gender parity have been accompanied by a general rise in secondary school enrollment as well. The percent of children enrolled in secondary school has increased from 53.1% of secondary school age children to 62.5% – a roughly 10% increase in as many years. Though much work remains to be done, particularly in terms of access to education among lower income communities, clearly great strides have been made in education, and it was with these advances in mind that the Nobel Committee, in addition to recognizing the work done by Satyarthi and Youafzay, commended the “many other individuals and institutions in the international community [that] have also contributed.”[5]

Among these contributors are organizations like the World Bank, which is “one of the largest external education financiers for developing countries,”[6] as well as governments like those of the United States and the United Kingdom. The British Department for International Development has prioritized improving education through reaching more children and acting to keep girls, particularly the most marginalized, in school. To these ends, the British government trains teachers to improve the benefits that children receive from schooling and aims to get up to one million more girls from the poorest regions of the world into school by 2015 through the Girls’ Education Challenge.[7] This sort of direct aid is one way for governments to contribute to the improvement of worldwide education, but other governments have adopted slightly different methods for pursuing this goal.

The United States, for example, runs a variety of youth exchange programs bringing foreign students to the United States for educational scholarship-based programs. Many of these programs are centered on the development of leadership or technical skills that students will bring back to their home countries to share with their communities.[8] Examples of such programs include the TechGirls program, which is designed to empower girls to pursue careers in the science and technology sectors,[9] and the English Access Microscholarship Program, which, although not an exchange program, provides after-school English classes in over 85 countries.[10]

While the broad array of programs and initiatives sponsored by the World Bank, US and UK governments, among others, do serve to devote much needed money and resources to the improvement of global education, their decision to focus on female access to education is open to criticism. Though it is obviously commendable to offer aid and a proverbial ‘leg up’ to girls in communities where females have been traditionally denied access to education, it is questionable as a matter of policy due to the presence of other factors, such as income, in accounting for disparities in access to education. That said, the amount of attention currently paid to gender issues in education does benefit the field as a whole—efforts to improve the representation of girls in schools will most likely lead to an increase in attendance among the economically disadvantaged (and other demographics) as well.

The significance of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to end the exploitation of children and to make education more accessible to historically marginalized groups cannot be understated. The Nobel Peace Prize has a tremendous amount of symbolic power, power that the Nobel Committee strives to use for the peaceful advancement of the international community. Indeed, the recipients of this award were chosen in part because “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”[11] This statement by the Nobel Commission expresses the symbolism in the selection of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay as Nobel Peace Prize recipients, showing that members of traditionally adversarial societies can come together to fight global issues. This sentiment, together with the focus on education and the lives of children, allow us as a society the opportunity to invest in our future. The world of tomorrow is built today, through education. Though never really a sensational focus in the international arena, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay presents the opportunity to grab the bull by the horns and confront global issues in education. The question is: what will we do next?












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