Friday, October 19, 2012

Human Right to Education

The story of Malala Yousafzai was one that raised feelings of both angst and anger to an intensity that I had not felt in years. Particularly so given the current development work I am doing in East Africa in the education sector.

At age 11 in late 2008, Malala Yousafzai began blogging for the BBC's Urdu Service under a pseudonym. Her writing became quite the hit and was even translated into English after it grew in popularity. Under the backdrop of conflict that swept through her town in northern Pakistan in 2009, Malala blogged about her passion for education. She related her ambitions of becoming a doctor and of becoming a symbol of resistance to the local Taliban insurgency.

After 10 weeks of having her blogs published, her family left the Swat valley and the blogging stopped. They returned home later in 2009 after the Pakistani army regained control of the Swat Valley. Since then, her father decided to publicise her name when nominating her for an International Peace Prize and Malala almost instantly became famous as a youth activist.

As her international celebrity status grew, Yousafzai also spoke openly about her dream to someday form and lead a political party in Pakistan that would focus on the right of girls to receive an education.

"I want to become such an inspiring leader to lead the nation, Pakistan. Along with that, I also want to serve humanity in whatever shape and form that may be."

And this from a 14 year old girl. Even today as I coach principals, teachers and students, I have yet to meet someone of that calibre.

Sadly, her popularity was not without its price. This week Yousafzai finds herself in hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound to her head, after the minibus she was riding from her girls' school was attacked earlier in the week.

Shortly after the attack in Mingora, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the shooting. The group had previously told Radio Mashaal in March this year that Yousafzai had been placed on a hit list - and this was not the first time such a de facto death warrant had been issued.

This begs the question: Why was Malala Yousafzai perceived as a significant threat?

Simply because she dared to dared to seek an education for girls in the region? Following the recent bombings in Libya, there has been much international commentary on Islamic anger and rightly so. Are these beliefs that fragile that they need to be defended with militant violence against the mere opinion of a young girl?

A similar situation existed in Afghanistan. There, the Taliban, who also previously prohibited schooling for girls altogether, have now relaxed their view about girls’ education in areas they control. They negotiated with government, where in exchange for not attacking students or teachers, the Taliban leaders themselves dictate what is taught in the schools, and by whom.

Importantly, however, this softening of attitude is not the result of government negotiation alone. There was signficant public pressure applied. The demand for access to education for all is evident there, just as it is now in Pakistan.

The education statistics in Pakistan are horrific: less than a third of all women have ever attended school. Whilst researchers attribute much of this to poverty, overcrowded schools, antiquated teaching methods, and dilapidated school premises, much of the challenge is attitudinal. Families are reluctant to send young girls to schools and even more acknowledge that an early marriage as a higher priority than education for girls.

The unfortunate thing about such "traditional" attitudes is that they are prevalent in the poorer communities which are typically also the least educated. This, in turn perpetuates directly into an ongoing economic disadvantage.

The situation is not as dire in East Africa but it is far from satisfactory. Somehow, the link between education - particularly for girls, and an improvement of life in general needs to be built. If religion which can be such a crucial and effective tool to build such a link in these communities continues to be an obstacle rather a support, the lot of a huge chunk of the population will never improve.

Hopefully Malala Yousufzai, who is fortunately recovering from her gunshot wounds, remains a beacon of hope and an inspiration for many others to demand what I believe to be a basic human right, education.

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As many of you know, I will be taking some time off from my development work in East Africa to help on a research project on the social impact of the online casino industry in developing countries - specifically in India and South Africa where the legality of online gambling is still in question and the local market is unlikely to be officially regulated for some time.

One can but wonder though whether hitting it big by playing the UK National Lottery or lottery online india is the only hope some people have of getting out of their current situation in terms of poverty in their own lifetimes. Personally, if I were even slightly luckier than I am I would quite happily try my own luck and gamble online for real money if only to fund the vast number of social development projects I have on my list - including the ones involving supporting the likes of Malala Yousafzai in her quest to bring education to girls and communities that need it the most. Alas, I shall have to resort to travelling around hat-in-hand for social development grants as has been the case over the last 10 years. But who knows, some day I might just win!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Inspirational Paralympics

Paralympics 2012 logo
When astrophysicist Stephen Hawking suggested we look up at the stars and I did, I experienced what can best be described as a rare moment of clarity. In that very moment, I realised where I was, who I was surrounded by and a feeling of awe overcame me. It was only a few weeks since I had attended the opening ceremony of the "main" Olympics in London, and many of the events that followed. This event - the Paralymics, however was different.

If the Olympics themselves are inspirational to many across the globe, the Paralympics should be even more so. Certainly there were tragedies befalling many of the Olympic athletes in the run up to the London 2012 games - from physical injury, heart surgery, death of loved ones and even getting shot in a case of mistaken identity. For me, though, the athletes of the Paralympics are testament to the strength of the human spirit beyond anything that could have been expressed just a few weeks before.

The disabled face a slew of challenges in their everyday lives. And these are not simply once-off occurrences they can recover from. These challenges need to be faced by them day-in, day-out. To train, and compete against peers despite that is quite something. Often I reflect on the challenges that I, and many of my able-bodied colleagues, face. The Paralympics is inspirational if only to provide the context for our own challenges, and to witness a special determinism that drives people to overcome hurdles that often-times seem insurmountable at first glance.

Paralympics opening ceremony image
I was glad to see that the flair had not been fully spent on the Olympics opening ceremony. Admittedly, the Danny Boyle spectacle would have been a tough act to follow. Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, the artistic directors of the Paralympics event, created a worthy start to the proceedings. Traditionally, it seemed that Paralympics played the role of the poorer brother to the main event - the ceremonies were nowhere close to being as well choreographed and spectacular. London 2012, I am pleased to say, was different. And for her Majesty, the Queen to appear at both events was special and very well-received by the audience.

The reach of the event is much wider than it has ever been. Having said that it has been rather disappointing that the likes of BBC so sparsely cover the event in comparison to their wonderful coverage of the main games. I have no doubt that the competition in the Paralympics will be as exciting and addictive as London 2012. In other countries around the world, notably the developing world - take South Africa and India as examples, the Paralympics barely feature as news unless the country wins a medal or two. Even that, it would seem, merits only a few moments in news broadcasts. Given the sad status of disability in Africa this is hardly surprising.

Perhaps this would be a good time for the Olympic committee to insist on greater coverage for Paralympics. They certainly had enough power to restrict countries from participating this year if they had no female representation on their teams. Perhaps a way of enforcing better coverage would be to better structure the rights to broadcast the main Games and the Paralympics more appropriately. One cannot help but speculate how many more people would have watched the Paralympics had BBC broadcast them as opposed to having them only on commercial-ridden channels.

"Ever since the dawn of civilisation, people have craved an understanding of the underlying order of the world. Why it is as it is and why it exists at all," said Professor Hawking.

Witnessing these challenged athletes compete gave me, for one, a sense of great admiration. It's not just about the triumph of the human spirit. Or about social inclusion, or about equality. It's about the realisation that everybody has their own lot, their own challenges, their own trials and tribulations to deal with - and success is very much about attitude, determination and the will to be the best you can be. Personally, I think the able-bodied population would get a lot more out of watching the Paralympics than the main games. Who knows, perhaps Oscar Pistorius can become the Usain Bolt of the Paralympics - a charismatic champion is exactly what the Paralympics needs now to really get the event on the map, and in every home.

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As an aside, apologies for the rather irregular posts over the last year. I have been travelling and working in places in Africa with very little access to technology. My little sabbatical to Western civilisation to watch the Olympics has been the highlight of my last year. It literally was like a blessing - as though one day I visited OCI in India, looked to the stars, then buy lottery ticket online and won it! I hope to record much of my Paralympics experience and bring it back to Africa to some of the villages I've worked with. If even a few people can begin to change their attitudes toward the disabled by having witnessed their spirit and what they are able to achieve, I would be thrilled.

After November, I should be a lot more regular with my blogging as I will be working in South Africa. I have a few papers lined up to be published on women's rights and social issues around online gambling in the developing world (that will be published online on NewsView in South Africa)... it should make for interesting reading particularly given the current legislation around both these topics in these countries.

Until then, keep well - I am off to enjoy the rest of the glorious games in London!