For girls living in northern Pakistan’s sprawling tribal regions, the struggle for education began long before that fateful day when members of the Taliban shot a 15-year-old schoolgirl in the head, and the struggle will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.
Still, the news that Malala Yousafzai — a former resident of the Swat Valley in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (kp) province — had received the Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 10, brought renewed vigor to those battling the Taliban’s hardline attitude.
Residents said that when she survived an attempt on her life on Oct. 9, 2012, Yousafzai became an icon, a representative of the state of terror that has taken over the region.
By awarding her the world’s most prestigious peace prize, experts say, the Nobel Committee is sending a message to those trapped in zones where education has been subordinated by conflict.
Muhammad Shafique, a professor at the University of Peshawar, the kp province’s capital, said Yousafzai’s prize has turned a “spotlight onto the importance of education.”
“It will be a motivational force for parents to send their daughters back to school,” he added.
Thousands without education
Since militants began crossing the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2001, following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, residents of these mountainous areas have endured the full force of extremist campaigns to impose strict Islamic rule.
At the height of the Taliban’s rule between 2007 and 2009, approximately 224 schools were destroyed, stripping more than 100,000 children of education.
It was during this period that Yousafzai, 12 years old at the time, began recording the hardships she faced in search of an education, writing regular reports for the Urdu service of the BBC.
Her struggle resonated across northern Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of young people lived in constant fear of reprisals for pursuing education.
For instance, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Taliban edicts banning secular schools as a “ploy” by the West to undermine Islam have kept 50 percent of school-aged children out of the classroom.
Since 2004, the Taliban have damaged approximately 750 schools, 422 of them dedicated exclusively to girls, according to a source within the FATA directorate for education. FATA has one of the lowest enrollment rates in the country, with just 33 percent of school-aged children receiving an education.
Between 2003 and 2007, the dropout rate reached 73 percent, as families fled from one district to another to escape the Taliban. The latest wave of displacement has seen close to one million people from North Waziristan Agency, or region, evacuating their homes since June and taking refuge in Bannu, an ancient city in kp.
A report released by the United Nations in August found that 98.7 percent of displaced girls and 97.9 percent of the boys were not receiving any education.
Already facing a primary school enrollment rate of 37 percent, Bannu is in crisis, with 80 percent of its schools occupied by refugees.
The honor bestowed upon Yousafzai has touched thousands of people and revived a campaign for education. Since late 2012, enrollment in the Swat Valley has increased by 2 percent.
From abandonment to hope
Naila Ahmed, a 10th-grader originally from North Waziristan Agency who now lives in a Bannu refugee camp, feels her generation has been “unlucky,” forced to grow up without an education.
She views her displacement as a “blessing in disguise,” since the move to Bannu has enabled her to enroll in a private school.
She considers herself one of the fortunate ones. Few parents in the region can afford the cost of private schooling.
Yasmeen Bibi, 13, said her parents cannot shoulder the bill for an education. “We hope that the government will make arrangements for our education,” she said from her makeshift home in Bannu, adding, “We appeal to Malala to spend funds to promote education in FATA.”
The Taliban claims that Yousafzai “abandoned Islam for secularism” by accepting an offer to live and study in the United Kingdom. Some agree, but recently any ill feeling toward Yousafzai appears to have dissipated, replaced by a collective euphoria.
Yousafzai’s former classmate, Mushatari Bibi, explained that the news has been like “a ray of hope” to other girls, who take a big risk each time they leave their homes to head to school.