Malala a rainbow of hope for right of girls to education

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 23, 2014

Among the responses I received to last week’s column on rainbows, one stood out in its praise for a rainbow of a teenager who has risked her life for girls’ rights.

Rainbows are symbols of hope. Such a rainbow has been celebrated beautifully in the announcement of this year’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the 17-year-old Pakistani girl who took a Taliban bullet to the head in 2012 in her fight for the right of girls to an education and lives to continue inspiring many.

As Malala so famously said in her address at the United Nations last year: “Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.”

One of our well-informed email coffee companions, Houston-based Dr. Denise Coleman, has heartfelt respect for Malala in this regard. A university student of mine from back in the late 1980s, Denise wrote us to explain why:

EVERY TIME I SEE a photo or read an article about Malala Yousafzai, I cry. I am not exactly sure why I have such an emotional reaction. There are the obvious reasons, such as her incredible courage to stand up to the Taliban and Islamist extremists who seek to keep women uneducated, oppressed, and terrorized for daring to seek equality. That kind of courage is singularly inspiring (and perhaps even divinely inspired). But I also think Malala's calm and resolute demeanor, whenever she articulates her absolute conviction that she is entitled to an education is what resonates with me.  

My own life story is not without trials, albeit of the First World variety and not akin to life and death scenarios experienced by Malala. But my life is now one characterized by love, joy, and success – and that is largely due to an excellent education which provided me with inspiration, motivation, choices, and options. I would also note that excellent education included being blessed with the best teachers, professors, and mentors I could ever wish for (including Dr. Warren Harbeck and his wife Mary Anna) who opened whole new vistas and avenues of inquiry to me.

These days, I write about the more than 195 nation-states of the world for a living, and the evidence is clear: when girls are educated, their countries benefit. Here are some sobering statistics from UNESCO:  Of the close to 30 million children who do not get a primary school education,  95% of them live in low and lower-middle income countries (44% in sub-Saharan Africa, 19% in south and west Asia, and 14% in Arab countries).

In the area of human development, the general consensus is that greater access to education for girls ends up benefiting entire nation-states. The most obvious positive effect is that girls who go to school end up growing up to be parents who ensure their own children also get an education. So the benefits end up being multi-generational.

The notion of education for girls is not some sort of abstract conception on gender inequality; it is about real quotidian effects in the lives of people. It is particularly relevant in developing and underdeveloped countries. Children of educated women are less likely to die before their first birthday; in fact, there is a notable reduction in the infant mortality rate of children born to women with a basic education. One example is India, where the mortality rate of infants born to women with a primary education is half that of infants born to illiterate mothers.

Meanwhile, children of educated women in developing countries are less likely to encounter dangerous diseases, such as HIV/AIDs and Hepatitis, which can be passed onto children. The effects of better education and, thus, knowledge of health care, also benefit grown women since they are less likely to die during pregnancy thanks to their understanding of pre-natal care. As a result, countries with women getting at least a basic education tend to coincide with countries with lower maternal mortality rates.

There are also the societal effects. The more education a girl receives, the less likely she is to be subject to childhood marriage. In fact, an educated woman is likely to marry at a later age and have fewer children. Perhaps more importantly, she is also less likely to tolerate domestic violence, and in the era of global threats and insecurity, the less likely she will be to tolerate extremism and acts of terrorism from the males around her.

Moreover, the more education a female receives, the more likely she is to be politically and socially engaged, and the more likely she is to be able to escape poverty, make a higher wage than uneducated women, be more economically productive, and thus raise the standard of living for her family, which ultimately translates into a better human development profile at the national level.

If we want a better world, one way to start is to ensure that girls have the same right to education that boys enjoy. Using religious beliefs to deny the right of education to girls – a right that was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 – is a travesty and a betrayal of humanity. As Hillary Clinton famously said, "Women's rights are human rights."

Denise Coleman, Ph.D., President, Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer at


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page